Ratzinger: the grinch who stole Christmas

The Mail brings us a hilarious attack on the "killjoy" Pope who it accuses of "rubbishing" beloved Christmas traditions in his latest book.

With just under 34 days until Christmas the Pope has put a dampener on the festive period by rubbishing the idea that donkeys or any other animal have a place in the traditional Nativity scene. Benedict XVI also claims angels never sang to the shepherds to proclaim Christ birth's - trashing the much-loved carol 'Hark! The herald angels sing' in the process. From this falsehood the tradition of singing carols was born, the Pope says.

Oh dear. Is the pontiff channelling his inner Richard Dawkins? It seems so. In a desperate attempt to shift the million copies of the last instalment of his three-volume study of Jesus (which focuses, for reasons best known to his publisher, on the beginning of the story) Ratzinger has looked at the relevant passages in the Gospel of Luke and discovered, presumably not for the first time, that they contain no mention of the ox and ass so familiar from the Christmas crib. This is news! 

If Rowan Williams had said it, the Mail could happily have put it down to trendy Anglican liberalism. But we don't expect to hear such tradition-busting language from the Pope.

It is, it seems, an especially radical departure because the Pope's own Rome headquarters "regularly has a giant scene at Christmas and has displayed an array of animals at the heart of the Vatican, but the Pontiff is certain that is wrong."  There's no suggestion that a new, purified, donkey-free crib will be introduced this year, however, despite the Pope "debunking the theory". This is clearly scandalous.  Ratzinger should have the courage of his convictions and tear down the misleading Vatican crib.  Or else, follow his own logic and include a sack-bearing Santa along with the Three Wise Men, a character hitherto inexplicably missed out of Nativity scenes.  The original Santa Claus was a saint, after all, so there would be ample religious justification, at least as much as for the wholly fictional animals.

The horrified tone of the report suggests that, like some liberal Anglican bishop of decades past, Ratzinger has cast doubt on basic Christian doctrines. Which, of course, he hasn't. The books insists, as one would expect, on the historicity of the Virgin Birth, which many would consider strains plausibility rather more than the apocryphal presence of an ox and an ass in the stable. He even, it seems, accepts the story of the Star of Bethlehem, adopting the currently fashionable rationalising explanation that it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

I haven't read the book, but it strikes me that in sticking so closely to the text of the Gospel narratives Ratzinger is being a bit, well, Protestant. The familiar Nativity story, with its choirs of angels, lowing animals, three kings and all the rest is a quintessentially Catholic one: a delightful hodgepodge combining the accounts in Luke and Matthew with details plucked from other parts the Bible (the ox and the ass, for example, are mentioned in Isaiah), stuff from apocryphal gospels that never made it into the official Bible and centuries of storytelling and art. The elements were brought together by St Francis of Assisi, who assembled the first nativity scene (featuring live animals) in 1223.

The Nativity story is rooted in the Bible but much of its emotional engagement and narrative depth come from the later elaborations. Nor are they illogical. Luke doesn't mention a stable, but he does say that Jesus was "laid in a manger." A manger implies, if it doesn't necessitate, a stable; a stable implies animals; the heavily-pregnant Mary had presumably not walked all the way from Nazareth, so there must have been a donkey. There were "shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night"; hence sheep. Three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh imply three gift-bringers; the costliness of the gifts imply that they must have been rich; and so on.

The result was part theology, part fairy-tale. But the whole beautiful structure began to unravel when the Reformation put an emphasis on the words of the Bible and to downplay the story in favour of the theology.  What was left was a children's story.  But without the supporting cast of shepherds, innkeepers, donkeys and camel-riding kings the few basic Biblical "facts", which the Pope prefers to concentrate on, look rather exposed.


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