The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a 'legend'.
Dr Rowan Williams has claimed there was little evidence that the Magi even existed and there was certainly nothing to prove there were three of them or that they were kings. He said the only reference to the wise men from the East was in Matthew's gospel and the details were very vague.
Dr Williams said: "Matthew's gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that's all we're really told. It works quite well as legend."
The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable.
He argued that Christmas cards which showed the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, flanked by shepherds and wise men, were misleading. As for the scenes that depicted snow falling in Bethlehem, the Archbishop said the chance of this was "very unlikely".
In a final blow to the traditional nativity story, Dr Williams concluded that Jesus was probably not born in December at all. He said: "Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival." from The Telegraph
I don't have too many problems with what the Archbishop had to say, I just think he was foolish to say it. He should have led his listeners into a deeper understanding of the Mystery of the Incarnation and not denied those images that have been used to explain it.
Obviously St Matthew bears witness to the Tradition of "wise men from the east" coming to do homage, that is part of Revelation. They are not kings, there were three gifts; gold, incense and myrrh: not necessarily three wise men. St John Chrysostom suggests that there might have been forty of them, each bringing the three gifts.
There are no references to the presence of livestock, but as there is a reference to being "laid in a manger", it is not foolish to presume their presence.
Shepherds and wise men were obviously not there together. He is right too about the absence of snow and about the dating of Christmas in December.
The trouble with Dr Williams' statement is that it is part of the liberal protestant agenda of denial of the traditional signs and symbols. At the heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation is that the Son emptied himself of his divinity. What the infancy narratives are about is the descent of God, in Matthew and Luke, they are the preface to the Gospels in which Christ goes down and down and down until he descends into the very depths of his death on the cross and descent into hell. The animals in the stable are fitting in so far as they remind us of excrement and urine of the death on the Cross, and the rejection of Christ from the society of mankind.
The iconography of Christmas, the dating of Christmas itself, "in the bleak mid-winter" of mankind's need is a theological statement, it is about light in darkness, which the "darkness cannot overcome". When the need to find a date for Christmas arose, a time of darkness and cold is the most appropriate.
Certainly it is right to get people to see beyond tinsel and angels that look more like fairies , than the "mighty host of the Lord" who will fight and win the battle against Satan and sin. I suggested to my primary school that it would be proper to have boys playing angels in the school nativity play, and chanting like US Marines on a route march! Not a suggestion they took up.
Williams' statement belongs to that school of Liberals Protestants who explain the feeding of the 5,000 as "nice Jesus persuades everyone to be nice and share their nice sandwiches like nice people, so everyone was nicely fed, wasn't that nice, so let us all try and be nice and share this week". The trouble is that is not what God has revealed, through the scriptures.
Liberalism is always about denial and simplification and ultimately the dismal of God, orthodoxy is about acceptance and penetration of the mysteries of faith, so that we might know God.