Alan Storey: Christmas, like love, does not have to be a literal truth
The shamans of old would end their tales with: ‘Now I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true’. This sums up my take on Christmas.
Ask any lover, the world over, and they will tell you that truth is larger than fact. Lovers know they must lie, to tell the truth about their love. Lovers know they must exaggerate to be accurate. Lovers know they have to speak in absolutes to voice the ambiguous. Just listen:
“You are the most beautiful person who has ever lived”; “You are the reason I was born.”
Or as one IT specialist explained to me, during a pre-marital meeting, why he wanted to get married:
“After meeting her my personality underwent a complete defrag and she literally rebooted my hard-drive.” I didn’t ask him to unpack that.
Lovers’ language lives off metaphors. The only thing that redeems their words from madness is that they come from lovers’ lips. To listen to lovers speak of their love causes our hearts to bow before our minds can take issue with them.
Christmas is a love story. A heart-bowing story. If we focus on the facts we will miss the truth. Be warned: Literalism is a Trojan horse ready to invade every verse of scripture. If allowed entry, life-giving words will be left breathless to inspire. When it comes to reading scripture many forget that to take a metaphor literally is to end up with an absurdity. People don’t phone the SPCA when they hear “It’s raining cats and dogs” and neither should we phone evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins at the first sound of angels singing.
The Christmas story is not attempting to prove the existence of God. Back then, proving God’s existence would be as pointless as proving the existence of the air they breathed. God was a given. The real question up for grabs was, “Who does God favour?”. In other words, it was the nature or character of God that ancient thought leaders hotly contested. Even to this day the answer to the question of God’s favour makes for massive political and economic consequences.
No wonder the privileged and powerful have always sought to corner the God-market, paying handsomely for a religious narrative that endorses their privilege and power as divinely ordained. Campaign managers across the political spectrum agree that going to the polls with “God on your side” is a game changer. It makes eternal electoral sense to secure a pliant priesthood on your payroll who persuasively preach: “To go against the king is to go against God.” Here treason is elevated to heresy. With this comes the added bonus that priests will sniff out their political adversaries. Trust me: you don’t need intelligence spooks when you’ve got priests on the hunt for heretics.
No wonder King Herod was “disturbed” when he heard from travelling stargazers of another king being born — an understated yet direct way for the oppressed and woke of Rome to declare #HerodWillFall. When it comes to kings, two’s a crowd, so Herod consulted his paid priests who duly informed him, according to the prophets of old, that Bethlehem was the expected drop zone for the new king.
It took a while for the stargazing Magi — the so-called wise — to believe that true power was to be found in a shack in Bethlehem rather than a palace in Jerusalem. Throughout history, the “wise” have mistakenly correlated power with the well positioned and privileged, the strong and mighty.
Yet South Africans know well that Vilakazi Street in Soweto housed more power than all of Denel’s murderous explosives. We know well the pulling power of the 2x2-metre political prison cell on Robben Island photographed by tens of thousands of tourists while an office in the Union Buildings stands hollow without a single Instagram post. The Christmas story informs us that the true location of socio-political power is not in the official corridors of power but on the dusty streets of common people — especially the poor who hunger and thirst for real change more than any others.
Christmas subversively suggests God — the Power over all other powers — is grounded among us in the lives of the poor, the vulnerable and marginalised. In the bodies of the disfigured and dispossessed. Christmas states: To honour God is to honour the vulnerable. God is not turned on by choruses of praise, but dances when the poor hear good news. Yet, now as it was then, the poor (especially if you are black) are persecuted rather than prioritised. Deemed a problem to be policed. There is no room in the inn(er) city for them. The dominant order would rather sell off public land to private developers than make any room. Little do they know that in doing so they banish the Divine and ultimately secure their own demise.
To drive home the political point that God is grounded among us in the bodies of those considered the least, the Christmas story crazily announces God’s groundbreaking partner to be a virgin girl. This is one small embrace for the peasantry and one giant smack for hyper-patriarchy. We read:
“The angel (Breathe Dawkins Breathe!) went to Mary and said: ‘Greetings you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ ”
This was one brave angel. The regime religiously declared God only favoured the healthy and wealthy, making the angel’s song treasonous and surely banned to prevent another break in the wall of Herod’s power.
If you believe in a Creator God then believing in a virgin birth is small fry, but the Christmas story is not a self-promotional video about God (as Herod’s paid priests preach) – but rather a subversive story to liberate the wretched of the earth from mental slavery. Hearing the good news of favour, love and regard is revolutionary under any form of fascism. If the angel’s words of love were true, then the structures of society that oppress the majority in favour of an elite few (often in the name of God) have nothing to do with God and therefore they are not fixed and eternal. They were man-made and therefore can be womanly-broken down.
Mary understandably had a few reservations. Along with her, we all need reminding that when it comes to birthing the holy we are all virgins — none of us has all the ingredients necessary. We need the Divine to help us conceive and bring to life the treasured traits of courage, honesty, service, humility, justice, gentleness, generosity, compassion and mercy.
If Joseph is to be ruled out of fatherly contention, then in the minds of those sitting around Mary’s kitchen table there were only two other possible explanations for Mary being with child. She was either having an affair (willing shame on her and Joseph’s family and worthy of stoning) or she was raped (un-willing shame on her and Joseph’s family also in some circumstances worthy of stoning). The issue of shame (either way) is what strongly suggests that Joseph was not the father because it would make no sense to choose a more shame-filled and life-threatening option. I have no proof of the first or the second explanation but in this year of #MeToo the second possibility demands our serious attention.
Sadly, now as it was then, the odds of rape — especially under a military occupation by soldiers who knew that their penises were as effective as their spears in terrorising their enemies – was extremely high. Soldiers throughout history have loaded their guns and unzipped their pants as two interchangeable weapons of war. In just one contemporary instance, between 12,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the war in Bosnia. Women and girls left impregnated by war rape face the horrifying dilemma of whether to have the child or not. Timeously then, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege have jointly been awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”.
Mary courageously decides to keep her child, sealing her shamed place at the bottom of society. From then on she is almost certainly viewed as God-forsaken. And herein lies the revolutionary and miraculous message of the Christmas story that no carol dares to declare: God comes into the world through those the world calls God-forsaken. God loves those who the world believes it would be better off without. Christmas is the story of God’s love for the least — the very least.
Mary’s courage was only matched by Joseph’s grace. A grace that stands in solidarity with the shamed and makes a family with the forsaken.
This grace is poignantly relayed to us by Marcus Solomon — Robben Islander (1964-1974). On his cell wall, we read:
“When prisoners’ wives started other relationships. It was also discussed. One chap was sentenced to seven years. During his imprisonment, his mother told him that his wife was pregnant from another man. His mother had sent her back to her family. But the relationship did not work out and the prisoner went to visit his wife at her family kraal upon his release. He came back with his wife, his own two children and the two children from the other man.
“He said: ‘Look, I’m bringing my wife home with these four children. They are all my children and they are going to stay here from now on. She didn’t send me to jail so I’m going to look after them.’
“His brother who was also on the island told us that story. It taught us about understanding and tolerance. It was more than tolerance; it was a deep understanding of human relationships, human weaknesses and what humanity is about.”
When courage and grace join forces wounds are healed and a little of the world is liberated.
During Mary’s long walk to Bethlehem she sings to her womb-held child a song of freedom — the original redemption song:
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely now all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me… the Lord has scattered the proud… brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; the Lord has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 1:46-53]
The child’s education began early — one can only wonder what the child will do with it.
Now I don’t know if Christmas happened this way, but I know this love story is true. DM