Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Even though Christians are presently are entering into the penitential season of Lent (Ash Wednesday falls on 6 Feb. this year), several Christmastime issues still remain in the news. One certainly is lingering reports of the Archbishop of Canterburys comments on the BBC concerning the traditional Christmas Gospel. "Its all a Christmas tall story" is how the headline on "Time Online" moved the report.
For one thing, the Archbishop, Dr. Rowan Williams, errs seriously in minimizing, indeed, almost dismissing, the Biblical doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The truth here is that this doctrine cannot possibly be ignored as questionable or irrelevant; it clearly is a Biblical datum. Moreover, it is articulated in the historic Nicene Creed, precisely in the words, "born of the Virgin Mary."
Too, the Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, one of the finest theological minds of the 20th century, who gave the world 15 volumes entitled Church Dogmatics, leaves no room whatsoever for challenging the Virgin Birth. Barth summarized his defense of this doctrine by insisting that it represents a "Creator" act rather than a "pro-creative" act, precisely because of Gods gracious will; hence the reason for it was "God, God alone, God himself." (Gott, Gott allein, Gott selbst).
Consequently, the Virginal Conception and Birth of Jesus is crucial to an understanding of Christianity. It is not optional. It means that the Incarnation was due to Gods grace, grace absolutely.
Our present Holy Father has reaffirmed this doctrine strongly many times.
Out of curiosity, I took a look at a book about Christmas published by the Archbishops wife in 2005; Jane Williams is a freelance writer and currently is a visiting lecturer at Kings College, London. Several of the Biblical texts citing Marys virginity are reproduced, although a key prophecy from Isaiah renders the traditional "Virgin" as "young woman." And in the text, Mrs. Williams specifically grants Marys virginity; see p. 11. Moreover, she seems to grasp the reason for the Virgin Birth. Her book, Approaching Christmas, merits qualified recommendation. It was published here in 2006 by the Daughters of St. Paul.
Dr. Williams also glibly discards as "legends" a series of Christmas impressions widely held over the centuries, some more soundly founded than others. Chief among these is the story of the Magi, as related in the Gospel according to Matthew. Granted, the Magi were mysterious visitors from the East; granted, too, the star which they saw and followed may have resulted from what theology views as a "modal" miracle (e.g., the conjunction of certain planets, or a comet). No such theories have yet proven satisfactory on all counts, however, especially the Scriptural reference to the Stars preceding the Magi to the place where the Child Jesus was. (Mt. 2:9)
Again and again, in new, allegedly "sophisticated" ways, the data of Scripture have been questioned. However, again and again, too, the mysteries associated with these data have been deciphered by historical or archeological discoveries. In interpreting the visit of the Magi, scholars have hardly scratched the surface; we all have so much to learn. (See how suddenly the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the 1940s, have cast so much background light on the story of St. John the Baptizer.)
Besides, the lesson of the Magi is unmistakable: anyone who sincerely searches for God will find him. Moreover, as Pope Benedict XVI notes in his latest Encyclical, Spe salvi, the stars in the heavens are now "moving in the orbit determined by Christ," who is Lord of History. Life, therefore, is not meaningless, nor simply a product of the laws of evolution and matter.
Dr. Williams misspoke about so many other Christmas issues in his BBS interview. Why, for example, make such a case over the date of Christmas? What Christians hold sacred is the liturgical date; no claim that it was the historical date has been formally made. (It may have been 25 Dec. or its equivalent, however.) And the introduction of the animals (e.g., oxen, donkey, sheep) was borrowed by St. Francis of Assisi from Old Testament prophecies (he actually brought in live animals).
At any rate, the Archbishops wife, Jane, appears closer to the real Christmas Story than he does.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor ofThe Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.