Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent and Apocalypse



Browsing one of my books for Advent (The Roads from Bethlehem), I was reminded of both the complexity of scriptural history, and the nearness of the apocalyptic in Advent. There are two other nativity stories outside the canon, and while both are dependent on Matthew and Luke, both also recognize, even more strongly than the canon narratives, the apocalyptic nature of the story they are telling.

Start with the Arabic infancy gospel:

1. We find what follows in the book of Joseph the high priest, who lived in the time of Christ. Some say that he is Caiaphas. He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom you have brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to you; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.

2. In the three hundred and ninth year of the era of Alexander, Augustus put forth an edict, that every man should be enrolled in his native place. Joseph therefore arose, and taking Mary his spouse, went away to Jerusalem, and came to Bethlehem, to be enrolled along with his family in his native city. And having come to a cave, Mary told Joseph that the time of the birth was at hand, and that she could not go into the city; but, said she, let us go into this cave. This took place at sunset. And Joseph went out in haste to go for a woman to be near her. When, therefore, he was busy about that, he saw an Hebrew old woman belonging to Jerusalem, and said: Come hither, my good woman, and go into this cave, in which there is a woman near her time.

3. Wherefore, after sunset, the old woman, and Joseph with her, came to the cave, and they both went in. And, behold, it was filled with lights more beautiful than the gleaming of lamps and candles, and more splendid than the light of the sun. The child, enwrapped in swaddling clothes, was sucking the breast of the Lady Mary His mother, being placed in a stall. And when both were wondering at this light, the old woman asks the Lady Mary: Are you the mother of this Child? And when the Lady Mary gave her assent, she says: You are not at all like the daughters of Eve. The Lady Mary said: As my son has no equal among children, so his mother has no equal among women. The old woman replied: My mistress, I came to get payment; I have been for a long time affected with palsy. Our mistress the Lady Mary said to her: Place your hands upon the child. And the old woman did so, and was immediately cured. Then she went forth, saying: Henceforth I will be the attendant and servant of this child all the days of my life.

4. Then came shepherds; and when they had lighted a fire, and were rejoicing greatly, there appeared to them the hosts of heaven praising and celebrating God Most High. And while the shepherds were doing the same, the cave was at that time made like a temple of the upper world, since both heavenly and earthly voices glorified and magnified God on account of the birth of the Lord Christ. And when that old Hebrew woman saw the manifestation of those miracles, she thanked God, saying: I give You thanks, O God, the God of Israel, because my eyes have seen the birth of the Saviour of the world.

....

7. And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Jud├Ža, in the time of King Herod, behold, magi came from the east to Jerusalem, as Zeraduscht had predicted; and there were with them gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And they adored Him, and presented to Him their gifts. Then the Lady Mary took one of the swaddling-bands, and, on account of the smallness of her means, gave it to them; and they received it from her with the greatest marks of honour. And in the same hour there appeared to them an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey; and they went away, following the guidance of its light, until they arrived in their own country.

8. And their kings and chief men came together to them, asking what they had seen or done, how they had gone and come back, what they had brought with them. And they showed them that swathing-cloth which the Lady Mary had given them. Wherefore they celebrated a feast, and, according to their custom, lighted a fire and worshipped it, and threw that swathing-cloth into it; and the fire laid hold of it, and enveloped it. And when the fire had gone out, they took out the swathing-cloth exactly as it had been before, just as if the fire had not touched it. Wherefore they began to kiss it, and to put it on their heads and their eyes, saying: This verily is the truth without doubt. Assuredly it is a great thing that the fire was not able to burn or destroy it. Then they took it, and with the greatest honour laid it up among their treasures.
Note there the reference to the "cave" as the birthplace. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over a cave which was supposed to be the place of Jesus' birth. The argument goes that animals were usually housed in caves, although I've heard Middle Eastern scholars argue that livestock would be kept in the family dwelling at night, and indeed I think the distinction between "indoor" and "outdoor" is a far more recent, and Western, idea than we realize. But the Arabic Gospel is not the first written reference to a "cave." There is another gospel reference, albeit a non-canonical gospel, one that was another source for the Arabic Gospel, and is even more apocalyptic in tone and content. That gospel is the Infancy Gospel of James:

Chapter 17

(1) Then, there was an order from the Emperor Augustus to register how many people were in Bethlehem of Judea. (2) And Joseph said, "I will register my sons. But this child? What will I do about him? How will I register him? (3) And my wife? Oh, I am ashamed. Should I register her as my daughter? The children of Israel know that she is not my daughter. (4) This day, I will do as the Lord wants."

(5) And he saddled his donkey and sat her on it and his son led and Samuel followed. (6) And they arrived at the third mile and Joseph turned and saw that she was sad. (7) And he said to himself, "Perhaps the child within her is troubling her." (8) And again Joseph turned around and saw her laughing and said to her, "Mary, what is with you? First your face appears happy and then sad?"

(9) And she said, "Joseph, it is because I see two people with my eyes, one crying and being afflicted, one rejoicing and being extremely happy."

(10) When they came to the middle of the journey, Mary said to him, "Joseph, take me off the donkey, the child pushing from within me to let him come out."

(11) So he took her off the donkey and said to her, "Where will I take you and shelter you in your awkwardness? This area is a desert."

Chapter 18

(1) And he found a cave and led her there and stationed his sons to watch her, (2) while he went to a find a Hebrew midwife in the land of Bethlehem.

(3) Then, Joseph wandered, but he did not wander. (4) And I looked up to the peak of the sky and saw it standing still and I looked up into the air. With utter astonishment I saw it, even the birds of the sky were not moving. (5) And I looked at the ground and saw a bowl lying there and workers reclining. And their hands were in the bowl. (6) And chewing, they were not chewing. And picking food up, they were not picking it up. And putting food in their mouths, they were not putting it in their mouths. (7) Rather, all their faces were looking up.

(8) And I saw sheep being driven, but the sheep were standing still. (9) And the shepherd lifted up his hand to strike them, but his hand remained above them. (10) And I saw the rushing current of the river and I saw goats and their mouths resting in the water, but they were not drinking. (11) And suddenly everything was replaced by the ordinary course of events.

....

Chapter 20

(1) And the midwife went in and said, "Mary, position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place."

(2) When Mary heard these things, she positioned herself. And Salome inserted her finger into her body. (3) And Salome cried out and said, "Woe for my lawlessness and the unbelief that made me test the living God. Look, my hand is falling away from me and being consumed in fire."

(5) And Salome dropped to her knees before the Lord, saying, "God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, (6) do not expose me to the children of Israel, but give me back to the poor. (7) For you know, Lord, that I have performed service and received my wage from you."

(8) Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, saying to her, "Salome, Salome, the Lord of all has heard your entreaty. (9) Stretch out your hand to the child and lift him up and he will be salvation and joy for you."

(10) And Salome went to the child and lifted him up, saying, "I worship him because he has been born a king to Israel." (11) And at once Salome was healed and left the cave justified.

(12) Suddenly, there was a voice saying, "Salome, Salome, do not proclaim what a miracle you have seen until the child comes to Jerusalem."
The resemblance to Luke's gospel, especially, is not accidental. The cave reference, however, is not original to this gospel either. The earliest reference seems to be from Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, a very early work of Christian apologetics:

"Now this king Herod, at the time when the Magi came to him from Arabia, and said they knew from a star which appeared in the heavens that a King had been born in your country, and that they had come to worship Him, learned from the elders of your people that it was thus written regarding Bethlehem in the prophet: 'And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art by no means least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall go forth the leader who shall feed my people.' Accordingly the Magi from Arabia came to Bethlehem and worshipped the Child, and presented Him with gifts, gold and frankincense, and myrrh; but returned not to Herod, being warned in a revelation after worshipping the Child in Bethlehem. And Joseph, the spouse of Mary, who wished at first to put away his betrothed Mary, supposing her to be pregnant by intercourse with a man, i.e., from fornication, was commanded in a vision not to put away his wife; and the angel who appeared to him told him that what is in her womb is of the Holy Ghost. Then he was afraid, and did not put her away; but on the occasion of the first census which was taken in Judea, under Cyrenius, he went up from Nazareth, where he lived, to Bethlehem, to which he belonged, to be enrolled; for his family was of the tribe of Judah, which then inhabited that region. Then along with Mary he is ordered to proceed into Egypt, and remain there with the Child until another revelation warn them to return into Jud a. But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you," I continued, "what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us to-day, I shall again remind you of the passage." Then I repeated the passage from Isaiah which I have already written, adding that, by means of those words, those who presided over the mysteries of Mithras were stirred up by the devil to say that in a place, called among them a cave, they were initiated by him. "[Chapter 78]
Origen also puts the birth in a cave, and notes the location is known, which he offers as proof of the story.

CHAP. LI.

Now the Scripture speaks, respecting the place of the Saviour's birth--that the Ruler was to come forth from Bethlehem--in the following manner: "And thou Bethlehem, house of Ephrata, art not the least among the thousands of Judah: for out of thee shall He come forth unto Me who is to be Ruler in Israel; and His goings forth have been of old, from everlasting." Now this prophecy could not suit any one of those who, as Celsus' Jew says, were fanatics and mob-leaders, and who gave out that they had come from heaven, unless it were clearly shown that He had been born in Bethlehem, or, as another might say, had come forth from Bethlehem to be the leader of the people. With respect to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, if any one desires, after the prophecy of Micah and after the history recorded in the Gospels by the disciples of Jesus, to have additional evidence from other sources, let him know that, in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians. Moreover, I am of opinion that, before the advent of Christ, the chief priests and scribes of the people, on account of the distinctness and clearness of this prophecy, taught that in Bethlehem the Christ was to be born. And this opinion had prevailed also extensively among the Jews; for which reason it is related that Herod, on inquiring at the chief priests and scribes of the people, heard from them that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, "whence David was." It is stated also in the Gospel according to John, that the Jews declared that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, "whence David was." But after our Lord's coming, those who busied themselves with overthrowing the belief that the place of His birth had been the subject of prophecy from the beginning, withheld such teaching from the people; acting in a similar manner to those individuals who won over those soldiers of the guard stationed around the tomb who had seen Him arise from the dead, and who instructed these eye-witnesses to report as follows: "Say that His disciples, while we slept, came and stole Him away. And if this come to the governor's ears, we shall persuade him, and secure you."
But there is also a fair influence, at least, from the Revelation to John:

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.

Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.

Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.

She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.

The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.

Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back,

but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night.

They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; love for life did not deter them from death.

Therefore, rejoice, you heavens, and you who dwell in them. But woe to you, earth and sea, for the Devil has come down to you in great fury, for he knows he has but a short time."

When the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to the earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.

But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the desert, where, far from the serpent, she was taken care of for a year, two years, and a half-year.

The serpent, however, spewed a torrent of water out of his mouth after the woman to sweep her away with the current.

But the earth helped the woman and opened its mouth and swallowed the flood that the dragon spewed out of its mouth.

Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus.

It took its position on the sand of the sea.
John's revelation, of course, is apocalyptic; a word we associate with final things. But apocalyptic is eschatological only in a Platonic sense: that is, the revealing of the truth brings an end to all falseness. so John's revelation bears fair comparison to Isaiah's proclamation in Isaiah 7:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
He shall be living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good.
Although the Hebrew (in the Masoretic text) means "young woman," not "virgin" in the sense of a woman who has never engaged in intercourse. That word comes from to Matthew, and so to Christianity, from the Septuagint. But Isaiah's vision is one of renewal, of the birth of a new generation who will restore the hope of the nation. Apocalyptic, then, not in the sense of the Book of Daniel (written in Babylon during the Exile; Isaiah 7 dates from before the Exile), but in the sense of the hope promised by the God of Abraham. Which makes it a perfect Advent story, if an imperfect prediction of the "virgin birth" of Jesus.

And these apocalyptic nativity stories clearly inspired Ted Hughes' poem, "Minstrel's Song."

I've just had an astonishing dream as I lay in the straw.
I dreamed a star fell on to the straw beside me
And lay blazing. Then when I looked up
I saw a bull come flying through a sky of fire
And on its shoulders a huge silver woman
Holding the moon. And afterwards there came
A donkey flying through that same burning heaven
And on its shoulders a colossal man
Holding the sun. Suddenly I awoke
And saw a bull and a donkey kneeling in the straw,
and the great moving shadows of a man and a woman---
I say they were a man and a woman but
I dare not say what I think they were. I did not dare to look.
I ran out here into the freezing world
Because I dared not look. Inside that shed.

A star is coming this way along the road.
If I were not standing upright, this would be a dream.
A star the shaped of a sword of fired, point-downward,
Is floating along the road. And now it rises.
It is shaking fire on to the roofs and the gardens.
And now it rises above the animal shed
Where I slept till the dream woke me. And now
The star is standing over the animal shed.
Apocalyptic is often rendered in language we would call "dreamlike," if not "nightmare." It is not because apocalyptic aims for fantasy, but that it aims for a reality words cannot quite seem to contain (which violates all manner of modern philosophies, but so be it). That wonderful passage from the Infancy Gospel describe both the moment of revelation and, for a father, the moment of birth. I have a terrible memory for events, but I can still describe, in minute detail, the face of the clock I looked at just as my daughter was born, so I would know the time. It wasn't quite the caliber of the miracle Joseph experienced, but I know the expereince just the same. How would you want to describe the birth of your first-born, except in language so full it pushed the bounds of reality itself? In the case of this gospel, it spills over into apocalyptic; appropriate, given the subject matter of the story.

The symbolism of the Revelation is arcane, to say the least. But Michael is an archangel from Jewish lore. Even Satan is presented here as the "adversary" of Job, the one who accuses others before God day and night. But notice how even the earth (the creation of God) acts to protect the innocent; and notice, too, how well the story of desperation and flight from evil, and of the effects of an especially momentous birth, ring true to the nativity stories of both canonical gospels. If we have lost that sense of importance and even peril in our worship and our liturgical lives, or just in our observance of the season, it is another sign of just how much we have domesticated this holiday, and render it something for our convenience, rather than for our good. Walker Percy has a word to say about it:

God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing....What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!
Isn't that what Advent should be all about? About the startling vision that should shake us awake and send us out into the freezing world? What is missing? And what are we doing to find it?

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