A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


How the Pope stole Christmas

So Benedict XVI writes a characteristically smart and accessible and spiritual book, this one on the infancy of Jesus, the third in his trilogy, and in it he makes some commonplace observations about the likelihood of various Christmas traditions -- all the while highlighting the centrality of the Christmas message, the Incarnation.But some believers and bloggers and media outlets are scandalized at the heresy of questioning the such dogmatic precepts as the presence of cute farm animals at the manger. Reuters' Phil Pullella has the holiday hullabaloo:

(Reuters) - And so it came to pass that in the eighth year of Pope Benedict's reign, some tabloid and social media decreed that he had cancelled Christmas.The day after Benedict's latest book "The Infancy Narratives - Jesus of Nazareth" - was published on November 20, Vatican officials found some headlines they were not expecting."Killjoy pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions," read one tabloid headline, claiming that Benedict had snubbed traditions such as animals in nativity scenes and caroling."Pope sets out to debunk Christmas myths," ran another.Holy Scrooge! Some blogs unceremoniously branded Benedict the new Grinch that stole Christmas and one rocketed him to the "top of the grumpy list for 2012."And then there was this zinger headline from a web news site: "Pope bans Christmas".

"I think that what people need to realize here is that the pope is trying to be as historical as he can be," Father Robert Dodaro, professor of patristics at Rome's Patristic Institute, told Pullella."He wants to see the biblical narratives as history where possible but he is also trying to explain details in the narratives that cannot be historically verified," he said.God forbid.UPDATE: The Vatican paper weighs in, rather unhelpfully, saying the media confusion is another symptom of the widespread and silent marginalization of God in contemporary society. It is alsoa sign of the secularization and spiritual desertification of today's world.I'm not so sure that a love of Christmas traditions, albeit somewhat unbalanced, is a sign of godlessness and barbarians at the gate. Maybe it's a sign that the Church has work to do on education as well as evangelization, and needs to do it better. Benedict's books have been bestsellers, and this one is likely to be so as well. But maybe atheists are buying them all to burn them. For heat. Over the solstice. Yeah, that's it...

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

So can we still sing "The Friendly Beasts"? I like that one.

Of course there were no donkeys and sheep at the nativity. If all the stalls were already full with barnyard animals, where would the three kings park their camels?

It seems (from Pullella's account) that it's not so much "details in the narratives" the pope is calling into question -- where "narratives" means "what's actually written in the Gospels" -- as it is details that have built up in Christmas traditions over time. (Sort of like "FACT CHECK: the baby Jesus probably didn't have blond curls and blue eyes.") Benedict's take sounds pretty edifying, really, if not ground-breaking. Who are the bloggers Pullella mentions who have tried to make hay out of this? Fundamentalist Christians eager to pounce on the pope? Or just general troublemakers?

That is a great story, Father Komonchak. Biblical literacy, or illiteracy, is a real challenge, but I wonder if it is a challenge in different ways for different communities. Catholics are of course accused of not knowing anything about the bible -- we have saints and folk tales and rituals and such dodgy practices and beliefs instead -- and we sure could use some more biblical education.But evangelicals can cite chapter and verse (I was raised on Bible memory competitions in Sunday school) and also not know what it means, or anything of the history or facts of what they cite.

Maybe its a sign that the Church has work to do on education as well as evangelization, and needs to do it better.Agree. But it's not going to happen. Too much trouble. The bishops and priests are too poorly educated themselves and too unmotivated/lazy/fearful to attempt to educate their flocks. Ignorance is bliss. "I had rather feel compunction than know how to define it."

"The bishops and priests are too poorly educated themselves and too unmotivated/lazy/fearful to attempt to educate their flocks. "Groan. Consider the priests who hang out here. Does the above sound like an apt description of them?

"Groan" is too kind. Really, Gerelyn, a little charity at Christmas? Not to mention leaving the broad brush in the tool box. I think Catholics are by and large much different than many Protestants, or at least conservative evangelicals (though not Christmas-hating Puritans) in this regard. We're not biblical literalists, unless you count the whole Last Supper institution of the Eucharist thing. That's actually what made Marco Rubio's recent waffling on creationism so baffling (though understandable, from a political POV). He is Catholic (kinda) and Catholics don't have issues with evolution and the Genesis story the way others do.

Take a look at the seminaries' curricula. Why pretend that the situation is not dire? If a bishop were to require his priests to embark on a five-year-plan of preaching sermons based on real scholarship -- history, scripture, etc. -- designed to educate parishioners, what would happen? How many priests would be willing/capable of doing it? How loudly would the watchdogs bark?Take a look at the book Raymond Burke thinks should be required reading in seminaries: Mariology, (A giant book about a woman written by men. Lots of information about private revelations, apparitions, etc.)I don't find Rubio's "waffling" "baffling" at all. Did his bishop step up to denounce him? As long as the important (non-negotiable) issues are kept on the front burner, other stuff, like science, history, scripture scholarship, etc., etc., is not worth troubling our little heads with.

Catholic (kinda): the world's largest urrecognized and unorganized religious denomination (kinda)

Well, I guess that there will be two less figurines of my nativity set to unpack.

David G. ==True that most Catholics are not concerned about non-literal interpretations of the Bible. But the recent Pew report on why Catholics leave the Church said that something like 18% leave because they are unhappy with the way the Bible is taught (at least that's the figure I remember), and many who leave become Evangelical Protestants. Sounds to me like a good number want literal interpretations.I fear that many people need such a stable (oops) even rigid world-view that even minor changes in it jolts the whole thing. Some people just find change intolerable, and Catholics are taught all too often that "the Church never changes". Sigh.

My Christmas hope is that Benedict XVI's interpretation of the Christmas story doesn't get tangled up in the ""the hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in continuity the only possible interpretation", as explained by Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect of the CDF, in connection with earlier complete works of Joseph Ratzinger and Vatican II. The Archbishop finds heresy outside the orthodox interpretation (of the council) on both progressive and traditionalist sides. The significance of tradition, continuity, and rupture in the Christmas story should become clearly visible around town during the next few weeks.

"The Vatican paper weighs in, rather unhelpfully, saying the media confusion is another symptom of the widespread and silent marginalization of God in contemporary society. It is also a sign of the secularization and spiritual desertification of todays world."I find the "rather unhelpfully" rather unhelpful. This story never could have gotten legs if the original hysterical media stories hadn't been ignorant enough to send bloggers it scurrying down the road to idiocy. OMG, St Francis, Italian crib-maker, revealed as a liar! Gospel truth: Author Luke got his date wrong! Pope says angels can't sing!It may be unhelpful to refer to media "confusion" when what is meant is media rampant stupidity. . But in commenting on what the boobs made of the babble from the ignorant the Vatican could hardly be charitable and helpful at the same time.

Popular accretions always grow around transforming religious events, and they do no harm as long as the essential thing is kept first. Catholics are asked and even required to believe many things that have less historical verisimilitude than the possibility of domestic animals being in a stable.If the coming of Christ is a stupendous divine condescension that changes everything, it is entirely fitting, even if unverified, that the dumb creation as well as the speaking should witness it, and that the ox should graciously make way for the Lamb.

What about the palm tree in my olive wood nativity set from Bethlehem? Did pope Benedict say anything about the veracity of palm trees? And what about the village characters from my Provence nativity set - the bread-carrying baker, fish-carrying fish-monger, drum-carrying drummer, and village mayor with his blue white and red scarf? Do I have to get rid of all those characters too?

I fear that many people need such a stable (oops) even rigid world-view that even minor changes in it jolts the whole thing. Some people just find change intolerable, and Catholics are taught all too often that the Church never changes. Sigh.Yes Ann, isn't it just so lame to have to tolerate such ignorant riff raff that believe these sorry legends. If only they could be like we happy and enlightened few. Sigh...

I dont think he was writing ex cathedra---dont toss out your little nativity animals!

A shame that the following verse and drum beats will have to be excised from "The Little Drummer Boy"! :)The ox and lamb kept timePa, rum, pa, pum, pum

Bob S. --My post is about rigid people. Why would you identify them with ignorant riff raff?

Guys, if you read the article, the pope's book apparently says this: "No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass." I'm pretty sure that means if your nativity set DOESN'T have an ox and a donkey you have to get them right away, or not receive communion until you do.

Did the pope, in his attempt to be "as historical as he can be," suggest that the local midwife and the other women who helped Mary during the delivery be included in depictions of the nativity?

Ann:Oh gee, I don't know...whatever was I thinking? Rigid? Does that mean people who stand by their hard-won convictions, refusing, even in the face of such tolerant, sophisticated, open to change opinions by the cogniscenti? get the idea?

Perhaps he deserves the vulgar and stupid reviews in TIME and the GUARDIAN. He certainly does not encourage serious reviews from theologians and exegetes. They would probably say that he underestimates the imaginative powers of midrashists like Matthew and Luke and that he also underestimates the significance of the parallel to the virginal conception in their contemporary Philo who tells us that Sarah after the angelic annunciation conceived Isaac when alone.

Claire: Do you have the village thief santon? It was my son's favorite when he was little. - which reminds me - I wonder if Pope Benedict XVI has seen Mr. Bean's nativity skit.

No, I don't have a thief. you have the priest? wonder what pope Benedict thinks of the historicity of having the village priest come and visit the Holy Family.

I have a Playmobil Nativity (with the three kings add-on).And I have a Charlie Brown Christmas Pageant nativity scene as well where Snoopy is a beagle in sheep's clothing. younger daughter just loves to play with both of them.

Article in the NYT this morning about the camels who appear in the Radio City Christmas show. Christmas superstition: today's the day to begin saying the Hail and Blessed prayer. Say it 15 times a day until Christmas, and you'll get whatever you ask for. (Or something better.) Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen. (It is piously believe that whoever recites the above prayer 15 times a day from the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30th) until Christmas will obtain what is asked.) Imprimatur: Michael Augustine, Archbishop of New York, February 6, 1897

I think we discussed that last year: creches have changed from objects of devotion, in front of which one might pray, to mere toys that can be used and abused. I read that they became popular after the French revolution when there were restrictions on live nativity representations. Wikipedia says (in French): In France the first known creche was made in Marseille in 1775 by Laurent and consisted of small articulated models wearing local clothes, along with giraffes, reindeer and hippopotamuses, added in for exoticism. Jean-Paul Clbert says: "During the Concordat Laurent even included a carriage coming towards the stable ; the pope and his cardinals got out of it, the entire Holy Family knelt in front of him and the pope blessed them. During the shepherds' adoration a curtain came up to reveal the sea and a war ship that greeted the infant with a gun salute. Baby Jesus woke up with a start, opened his eyes and waved his arms." idea of the Holy Family kneeling before the pope is disturbing. Surely that's an extreme case of clericalism!

Claire:My santons are 4 cm. high. I have about 50 figurines and used to order them from Georges Thullier religious goods on Place Saint Sulpice.I have a gypsy with her baby and tambourine because there is a tradition that a gypsy attended Mary during the birth of Jesus.The thief is pictured on your link has a knife in his hand (5th row, 6th from the left). Oh, I also have monk dressed in brown in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.I read that one of the Avignon popes, Pope John XXII, began the santon tradition in the 14th century.

Gerelyn:For some reason my father was very devoted to that prayer. We were even encouraged to say it when I was in Catholic grammar school. (My best friend told that she was praying for snow on Christmas. I remember thinking that there were more important things to prayer for.)Normally, I would look upon this prayer as a remnant of my early Catholic years. Yet, my brother is undergoing a 10 hour operation for cancer next week. He is determined to be home for Christmas... .

Helen, I'll pray for your brother.

It's a treasured remnant of my early Catholic years, too, along with so many other Christmas memories, including the Advent hymns we sang at Mass every morning. Drop Down Dew was one of my faves. (I'll include your brother in the special intentions I'm praying for fifteen times a day.)

What about the white felt sparkle "snow" I put my nativity scene on. Can I keep that or what? Also, I have some type of herbaceous shrub and a palm tree. Are they kosher?

Wow - what a hissy-fit. I think Tom B. hit the nail on the head and in doing so, he is very "helpful" :"...This story never could have gotten legs if the original hysterical media stories hadnt been ignorant enough to send bloggers scurrying down the road to idiocy. ..."

For clarification: the article: ". . .But those who have read Pope Benedict at length know that such conclusions would be uncharacteristic of his thought. Had they even held the book? My curiosity was particularly stirred when I noticed the following quotation in the Time story, which they apparently took from the Telegraph (U.K.) rather than from the book: No one will give up the oxen and the donkey in their [sic] Nativity scenes. Any book editor worth his or her salt would notice the obvious pronoun disagreement. No way is that in the English edition, I thought. In comparing the stories, I noticed that the Daily Mail and others instead rendered the quotation: No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey. In the book, the sentence in question seems to be on page 69: No presentation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass. This is different from both representations. Which was it? I sought to find out for myself. Random House confirmed via email that neither of the first two quotations listed is in the book; rather they are poor translations from the Italian. Not only have they misquoted the book, perhaps hastily translating the work from Italian, but these unofficial quotations have circulated among multiple publications . . ."

More from same article:" . . . what did the pope actually say about the nativity scene animals? He wrote, The manger, as we have seen, indicates animals, who come to it for their food. In the Gospel there is no reference to animals at this point. But prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Isaiah 1:3: The ox knows its owner, and the ass its masters crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Benedict actually affirms the image of the ox and the donkey present at the manger by pointing to Old Testament imagery and, later, to iconographic tradition that complement the Gospel source. His words justify, rather than call into question, the presence of the animals in the manger scene. This is the beauty of Benedicts writing, and why he is perhaps better read in the study or in the adoration chapel than in the newsroom. On the one hand, he points out what is obvious: the absence of the animals in the Gospel narrative. On the other, he shows why Christians came to understand that the animals were there, adding, No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass.And those talking, non-singing angels? What did the Pope actually say? He writes concerning the gloria, According to the evangelist, the angels said this. That must be about as far as some in the secular press read, because the very next sentence is: But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present. And so, from that moment, the angels song of praise has never gone silent (p. 73). . . ."

What are we doing discussing nativity scenes anyway? We're still in ordinary time, it seems to me. If Pope Benedict's publisher thinks that his new book would make a good Christmas present, then why did he not wait until Dec 2 before putting that book out? Isn't that jumping the gun a bit? Christmas shopping: that's what Advent is for, no? Must be the influence of consumerism, secularism, greedism, and other -isms.

If the same words had been published in mid-summer by German theologian Pfarrer Unbekannt, their impact and lifetime in the public square would probably have been about the same as the story of Jesus's Wife (remember?). Hitting the market with the Pope's book in the first week of the Christmas shopping season with a press run of 1,000,000 copies in 9 languages (and 20 more to come) and then complaining because some consumers don't read it as Vatican observers wish they did is odd. Every author-editor-publisher who goes public runs the risk that his key message will be missed. Why didn't the author, editor, and publisher in this case deliver a book that left no doubt for the obviously foreseen mass market what the central message was? The process of doing so is demanding but hardly unprecedented. Perhaps a second edition could be a revision that expresses clearly and understandably to ordinary readers, not just to the author, what is centrally important and what is relatively trivial.

A second edition is not necessary jack. Most people skwaking now have not even read the first edition.

As a sign of how things have changed: In the spring of 1960, the professor of New Testament at St. Josephs Seminary, Dunwoodie, Fr. Myles M. Bourke--, published an article entitled "The Literary Genre of Matthew 1-2" [Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22.2 (April 1960): 160-175]. Interpreting Matthews infancy-narrative as a midrash designed to show Christ as a new Moses, indeed a new Israel, he called into question the historicity of the coming of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents. An Italian priest on Staten Island denounced the article to his friend Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office. Ottaviani ordered Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York, to remove Bourke from the Dunwoodie faculty. When Spellman inquired of Bourke about the matter, he was told that Bourke had applied to Matthew 1-2 the exegetical methods he had learned at the Biblical Institute. Whereupon Spellman, who did not like Rome telling him what to do in his own diocese, told Ottaviani, This man is not saying anything he didnt learn in Rome. You take of your problems there, and Ill take care of mine here. Not only did he not remove Bourke from the seminary faculty, he made him his summer secretary the following summer and a few months later had him named a papal chamberlain. Auxiliary bishop Patrick Ahearn, then Spellmans regular secretary, later told me that Spellman said that he had to overcome the objections of the Apostolic Delegate, the Congregation for Seminaries, and the Holy Office in order to have Bourke named a monsignor. At the November meeting 1961 of the Central Preparatory Commission that was reviewing a text on scripture, Ottaviani illustrated the dangerous trends in Catholic biblical scholarship by referring to problems at Dunwoodie. (Indeed, the first draft On the sources of revelation would criticize people who called the infancy accounts into question.) By then, Richard J. Dillon, a New York seminarian had published an article which Ottaviani also criticized ("St. Luke's Infancy Account: A Study in the Interrelation of Literary Form and Theological Teaching," Dunwoodie Review 1 [Jan 1961] 5-37). By the time he had become an item in the official Acta of Vatican II, Dillon had himself been assigned by Spellman to study at the Biblicum.But, as Sandro Magister pointed out ten days ago, we now have the Pope himself admitting the possibility that the infancy narratives do not record actual events but rather provide a theological reflection in the form of stories, a conclusion that would not threaten the faith.

David, are YOU now using a "broad brush"? Catholics of my generation were well-versed (!) in the bible. And the generations that followed were given a wealth of information in scholarly and popular books, on t.v., etc. I can still picture the pictures in my 3rd and 4th grade bible history book. (Thanks, Sr. M L. and Benziger Brothers!) This is an earlier edition, (1904), but by the late 40s, early 50s, the pictures and the text were nearly the same. A different cover., you say "we now have the Pope himself admitting the possibility that the infancy narratives do not record actual events." Is he admitting that or simply stating what everyone knows? Even David, in his opening post, said the pope's observations are commonplace.

Gerelyn:I don't think it's a commonplace that the infancy narratives may not record actual events. There are a good number of people who will be shocked to discover that the Pope thinks it a possibility.

Disagree. Anyone who has read fairy tales, studied mythology, etc., cannot help but recognize the various genres represented in the bible and understand their varying levels of historicity, literary license, etc. (We're all descended from ancestors who celebrated the winter solstice, even if the names they gave the deities born that night were different. We honor their legacy when we deck the halls, light candles, hang mistletoe, sing carols, eat cookies, latkes, etc. Should we pretend not to know who we are and what the old stories mean?)

Fr. Komochak --- A question. The L'Osservatore Romano editorial by Jose Maria Gil Tamayo (dated Nov 30 but apparently the same one referred to above) says this book from the Pope is not an act of papal teaching but the expression of his personal and theological research on the Lord. The distinction is understandable but seems to me to raise questions in his specific case about the weight to be attributed to what he says. Are his research conclusions to be judged differently than some other theologian's because he is Pope? Who judges authoritatively as multiple cardinals did in the Dunwoodie cases you recalled?

Mr. Barry: The Pope has made it clear from the beginning that these books on Jesus are not exercises of his official teaching office, but represent simply what he, as a private theologian, thinks. So what he says is not to be judged any differently than anyone else's conclusions.

Gerelyn: There are lots of people who have not read widely in the types of literature you mention or who consider biblical narratives different in kind from those types, and they will be surprised, even shocked, at the Pope's admissions. This is why I think that it is not a commonplace to regard the infancy narratives as non-historical. (I understand a commonplace to be something commonly known.)

Yes, that's my understanding, too. I was a little surprised by David's opening post. In his first paragraph, he calls the pope's book characteristically smart. (That carries the implication that he, David, is even smarter and therefore able to recognize the smartness of another.) But then he calls the observations commonplace.I'm not tempted to read the book, however commonplace the observations. I know how Bavarians (and Germans in general) love Christmas. Christkindlmarkt, lebkuchen, etc. So I think it's understandable if the pope loves nativity scenes with wisemen and friendly beasts. Jay Strongwater's camel is only $1800 at Neiman Marcus. If there are people who "will be surprised, even shocked" at what you call the pope's "admissions," how long do you think it would take to set them straight, to clue them in, to educate them? A day? A sermon? Why don't priests and bishops do it? I think you may be underestimating the abilities of ordinary people. BibIical Archaeological Review has a circulation of 176,000. From Jesus to Christ on PBS was a big success. Etc.I found the thread on the Book of Job interesting. That's a good one to start with to demonstrate that the bible is a biblioteque, a library that contains many books, written by many people, at different times, relying on different sources. A short story like Ruth is easily understood, even by the wilfully ignorant. (The only person in the bible allowed to return to worshipping the Old Ones is Orpha, Ruth's sister-in-law.) And most people would understand the erotic poetry in the Song of Songs. They would not be shocked to learned that the lover's teeth are not literally goats. Etc.I liked the Dunwoodie story. Very different from the seminaries of today.

So Pope Benedict wrote "Unlike the account of the annunciation to Mary, the adoration on the part of the Magi does not touch upon any essential aspect of the faith. It could be a creation of Matthew, inspired by a theological idea: in this case, nothing would fall apart."It seems like backwards reasoning. Start from the "essentials" of our faith, the things which we "know" are true, then work backwards to define a minimum set of events who factual happening is necessary for our faith to be real. Everything else can be questioned, but nothing beyond that. Doesn't that destroy the gospels as a source of knowledge of reality? Something is true, not because it's written in the gospels, but because it is necessary for something else to hold, something that we know is true. But how do we know that that other thing is true? With such an attitude we cannot say: "because the gospels say so". It's weird. For example, how then do we know Christ is resurrected? Infused knowledge??

Claire --As understand it, it puts tradition on a par with Scripture -- if we didn't have tradition as first in time, we couldn't know that that the scriptures are authentic. But we could argue that backwards too -- as you show. Maybe it's the combo that guarantees the truth.This is another question that belongs in theological epistemology. There are many.

Everybody: stay calm. It is the genius of the Catholic imagination to "fill out" biblical narratives to enhance the notion of the incarnation. My wife collects Creche sets (she has about twenty of them) but none are as elaborate as the great set on display during the season at the Metropolitan Museum in New York recreating an entire Italian village. I will visit it again during Christmas to search for the place of Mary, Joseph and the Infant. That great baroque creche makes a powerful theological point: the birth of Christ took place in real time and in the midst of real history.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment