Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dr Williams' denial

Williams at an Ecumenical gathering in Bethlehem
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.


Anonymous said...

'The trouble with Dr Williams' statement is that it is part of the liberal protestant agenda of denial of the traditional signs and symbols'.

You've got it in a nut-shell Fr Ray.

And this steady decline within all the sects in the protestant ranks is precisely because of this gradual denial of God and the Sacred while at the same time indulging in all things human.

Humility is not in the protestant vocabulary. Isn't Dr Rowan just the most cleverest of all (not!) to have such great insight into what really happened in Bethlehem (or maybe somewhere else!)

Gregor Kollmorgen said...


I don't understand why you say (and don't agree that) "He is right too ... about the dating of Christmas in December." You yourself very aptly explain in a post below that the connection of Christmas to the "sol invictus" celebration is bogus (as the Pope has also explained in the "Spirit of the Liturgy".

Anonymous said...

The Magi are extremely important in the spirituality of Miles Jesu & to deny they exist is ridiculous...

Anonymous said...

well blogged,Fr.(ffn)

Fr Ray Blake said...

The post about the "sol invictus" was a theory, an arguement for choosing the December date. The significance is that Christmas preceeded this winter pagan feast.
Some suggest a spring date, when the shepherds were in the fields at lambing time.
We have to ask why the Church chose to celebrate Christmas day on this day, what is the liturgical significance?

Oliver Hayes said...

Same old thing! Dr. Williams is repeating the platitudes of liberal protestants that I can remember hearing 20 years ago. Their position is not motivated by any hard empirical evidence or archeological finds, but the desire to eliminate the scandal of the incarnation, the absolute and final repudiation of the modern will to power. 'Jesus Christ did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant..'

Anonymous said...

Go Oliver go!

Anonymous said...

This is the solitude of protestantism, the solitude, finally, of Dr Williams; Dr Williams as a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.

Extract from one of Dr Williams Book Open to judgment (with a minor modification replacing Dr Williams for God in the passage).

One thing you can give him credit for. He follows very faithfully his own god.

Gregor Kollmorgen said...

Dear Father,

on the topic of the dating of Christmas I recommend this post by Mark Shea:

Celebrating it in December is the oldest tradition there is, and to say that "Jesus was probably not born in December at all. Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival." seems simply incorrect.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Father, that Dr Williams was foolish to say what he did. The piece in the Times says "...his supporters would argue that it is a sign of a true man of faith that he can hold on to an orthodox faith while permitting honest intellectual scrutiny of fundamental biblical texts." But not very clever, let alone wise,for the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom people presumably look to for guidance, to share these thoughts with a live Radio 5 audience.

JARay said...

My understanding of the Christmas story is as follows:-
The requiremnet to "be enrolled" lasted for a year. Joseph was a carpenter and much of his work would be in the making and repairing of tools, ploughs etc. He waited until the end of the harvest to complete his work. Why else would he set out with a heavily pregnant woman about to give birth? That is why things happened in the Winter time. Although there probably was no snow, it would have been comparatively cold.
On arrival at Bethlehem, the only Inn was a one-roomed affair. This was the common state of Inns at that time. Here was a pregnant woman and the single room of the Inn was not suitable as a maternity hospital. "There was no room at the Inn" So, the kindly innkeeper said to Joseph "Take the stable and there you can have the privacy your wife ought to have, in order to give birth. There was no disgrace in this. It was very common for people to share the company of their animals right up into the Middle Ages. The animals were a source of warmth. It was winter time!
Thus it was that Jesus came to be born in a stable sharing the warmth of the animals and having the privacy that the common room of the Inn could not give.


Anonymous said...

Very nicely put JARay. And certainly far more plausible, if we are to look at these things objectively, than the shambolic ramblings of the Archdruid of Canterbury!

Anonymous said...

These comments on Archbishop Williams's statements - all of which form part of scripture studies in the most orthodox seminaries - are pathetic. They demonstrate the complete absence of an understanding of symbolic reality, a feature conspicuous by its absence in British thought, and are the fruit of living in an intellectual slum. 10 out 10 for duncehood.

JARay said...

What is "symbolic reality"?
As a child I used to watch clouds in the sky and see faces and mountains and rolling countryside.
Was I then seeing symbolic reality?
The clouds were real!
They did symbolise faces and mountains and rolling countryside!
I prefer actual reality to symbolic reality when I'm dealing with the inerrant word of God.
"I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life"
I am the Suggestion and the Symbol and the Haze.


Anonymous said...

anon ~ are you saying that even "orthodox" Catholic seminaries offer dubious interpretation of the sciptures?

Does anybody know if there is a single seminary offering a Catholic course at the moment for British students?

Are all our students forced to parrot rubbish answers and then go on the internet to find out what the Church teaches?

What is the most orthodox course available to Brits?

Do the Bishops seriously think that young men will forgo sex and money to study half-truths?

Fr Ray Blake said...

John, The Gospels are accounts of historic truths, but that is not their first concern. Above all it is theological truth that they are concerned with: the Revelation of God to man.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - I agree with you whole heartedly 'Archbishop Williams's statements are pathetic'. They are indeed devoid of any and all 'symbolic reality' and Puff the Magic Dragon lives in a tree.

Frankly I would rather live in an 'intellectual slum' where the only option is up, rather than in an 'intellectual ivory tower'.

Also can you please explain to me, a moron, non-intellectual and imbecilium exactly what the heck you are on about because I am simply not on the same level as you. God Bless.

Physiocrat said...

This sounds more like the words of wisdom that used to be scribed by Dr Spacely-Trellis — progressive Bishop of Bevindon in the Stretchford Conurbation. Remember him, anyone?

Were Peter Simple alive and writing at this hour, Dr Williams would not have dared to write such a thing, knowing that he would have been instantly lampooned.

JARay said...

I agree Father that the Gospels give us theological truth but that theological truth does not, cannot, deny the historical accuracy of the events in which those theological truths are framed.
There are those who have difficulty with the Creation story, for example, and seek to wish it away as simply a fable. They have the problem that the Pontifical Biblical Commission took a very different view. I won't quote you chapter and verse but I could.


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