The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us. I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.
One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity. Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.
We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)
Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations? This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.
I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?
Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).
I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)
This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.
We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.
Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).
In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)
The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon the light emitting from this icon..
*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”