I was right.
I said in a sermon several days ago that my congregation should expect the usual presentations on various parts of the Christmas story, the thrust of the articles (and letters to the editor) being about how either they did not occur on a literal level or how they did occur. This goes on every year. Some scientist throws around the latest Christmas theory about the star, (comet, supernova, etc.), and how we know this occurred, or did not. The same can be said about the Roman taxation, the journeys to Bethlehem and to Egypt.
Thus I was not disappointed to find at least one of these in my morning paper, and another in a letter to the editor the day before. It’s just evidence that the public (including scientists) have no idea of how to read Scripture. The Scriptures, as used in the Orthodox Church, are decidedly the Church’s Scriptures, and cannot be rightly read apart from the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church.
Literalism is a false means of interpretation (hermenuetic) and is a vain attempt to democratize the Holy writings. If they can be read on a literal level, then everyone has equal access to them and everybody has equal authority to interpret them. Thus certain forms of Protestantism, caught up in the various modern theories of the Reformation, sought to do to the Scriptures what many sought to do with their governments. Kill the princes! Kill the priests! Everyone can be his own king, his own priest. Smash the images and any claim to authority. Of course these extreme forms always failed quickly, to be replaced by some version of moderation.
Thus the Scriptures are not purely democratic – some interpreters are more equal than others.
But these stories become the fodder for newspapers and self-appointed interpreters when they venture onto the holy ground of the Gospel with no instruction or insight – and certainly without the liturgical life of the Church – without which there can be no proper reading of Scripture.
Here mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve I have already completed two of the services of the Christmas Cycle. The Royal Hours this morning which contained psalmody and readings from the Prophets as well as Gospels – all preparing for the feast that was beginning to break in on us. The second service, the Vesperal Liturgy, contained another nine or ten readings from the Prophets as well as one of the traditional Epistles and Christmas Gospel readings. This evening’s Vigil will bring yet more.
And the pattern, according to a very ancient arrangement, is the same as that of Pascha, for the simple reason that the event of Christmas cannot be understood until one understands Pascha (the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ). That event is the central event of Christianity and colors everything we do. The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is occasionally referred to as the “Winter Pascha.” Here the God whom the universe could not contained is contained in a Virgin’s Womb, born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. At Pascha, He whom the universe cannot contain is contained in Hades (the ultimate dark cave), wrapped in fine-linen and placed in a tomb. But the tomb does not hold Him. He tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life. By the same token, the point of the Christmas story is Christ’s Pascha, not the minutiae of Roman history. Every element of the Gospel account will point to Pascha. Indeed, every element of the Gospel points to Pascha. Christ preaches the coming of Pascha at every turn.
None of this is to remove the events of the Gospel from history. But in the Gospels, Pascha shapes history – and not the other way around. To quote St. John’s Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
But history is not the vehicle of our salvation: the Church alone has been ordained by God to be such a vessel. The radical historicization of Scripture is another part of the leveling of Reformation radicalism, seeking to democratize what God has not put in the hands of every man. Democracy is useful, and I like living in a society that resembles a democracy, but the Gospel has never been put to a vote. Christ died for us without so much as a plebescite. By the same token, the Scriptures (New Testament) were written by the Apostles who left their authoritative interpretation as the life of the Church, governed by its Bishops and the liturgical life of the Body of Christ. The same Apostles gave us a “matrix” by which we read the Old Testament, that itself is to be found in the Creeds, liturgical works, and writings of the Fathers. Again, no democracy was ever involved.
The understanding of caves, mangers, wise men, journeys to Egypt, stars and massacres will not be explained to us by the culture’s mavens of meaning – the masters of the objectivity (the academy). Those institutions, like all the institutions of this world, are not the mediators of the salvation that comes from Christ alone. Those who speak from such positions in our culture have earned the right to speak – but not about Christ. The authority to speak about Christ is given to those whom He has chosen and ordained.
But the seasons come and go and the media cannot resist speaking of what they do not know. And so they ask those who do not know to speak on their behalf. But if we would know Christ and the wonder of His incarnation, then we would do well to listen to those who have been appointed to speak and to hear them in the context given to us for listening – the liturgical life of the Church.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!