Christmas cards love camels. And when, last year, I made a nativity film with the congregation of Greenock West URC, it was a popular move to place the ‘Wise Men’ on camels, as a likely, but not essential mode of travel.
The text of Matthew’s Gospel neither mentions camels nor attributes wisdom to the visitors from the nondescript East. Indeed, it has been a convenience for monocultural Christians to disregard the intrusion of high-status visitors - (no, not kings, that’s another unhelpful over-interpretation) - from an alien culture and religion. ‘Wise’ allows you to ignore “pagan’. The Bible is not so fussy or ‘precious’ as its users. It has also been a convenience for ‘liberal’ scholars simply to assume most of the story is made up anyway by Matthew to massage into the tale of Jesus a bit more fulfilment of prophecy. And yet it remains: the story is its own evidence, with much to trip up the complacent, and no shortage of telling realism: in the naive arrogance of the learned and the ultimately futile violence of those sensing their power, or authority, is at risk. And is there, after all, something rather last-minute about the Magi(cians)’ gifts, rummaging in their treasure chests for something appropriate? Today, of course, Herod would be a climate denier. Both well-informed and acting at the cost of the innocent to hide that information. Don’t mistake denialism for mere evasiveness: it has real casualties, as our friends in churches around the world assure us.
Having control of ‘wardrobe’ in the nativity film, I did take the spiritual liberty of dressing the Magi (Zoroastrians?) in the white coats of scientists. They are, if nothing else, learned observers of Creation. Though, hampered in their honest interpretation of what God’s about by their conventional attitudes. Seeking a “king”, and assuming that others will think as they do, they head for Herod’s palace, and ultimately provoke the massacres of the infants of Bethlehem. One correction here to most of your Bibles at home: it’s not just the baby boys, but all the children up to about 2.
The defence of privilege and the status quo is marvellously inclusive. Matthew’s Nativity Story came up as the Bible study in a conference I was invited to these last few days. We read through the story, in a standard translation, slowly, and more than once, to let things sink in. You could try that.Then the leader of the study asked us all to consider what we might be led to share with someone else. Well, lacking a congregation, as such, there’s you, dear reader..
May you have a joyful and deeply challenging Christmas.
And next year, less plastic.
And next year less carbon.
May we go home by another way!