‘Tis the season to be litigious. In Pittsburgh, Staten Island, Brookville, Ind., and Jackson, Miss., Nativity scenes have been challenged, sometimes removed, then (in Pittsburgh) eventually replaced.
The manger scene has become such a potent symbol in the “war over Christmas” that its revolutionary meaning is being lost — even by some who “embrace the Christian label,” as news articles said of President Obama this week.
During the first 13 centuries after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, no one thought of setting up a creche to celebrate Christmas. The pre-eminent Christian holiday was Easter, not Christmas.
The first Nativity scene was not constructed until 1223 by everyone’s favorite saint, St. Francis of Assisi. He set up a wooden manger complete with hay and a live baby, surrounded by live oxen and donkeys.
What motivated Francis to start a new Christmas tradition? A revival of interest in Jesus’ humanity — which would have far-reaching, even revolutionary consequences.
Until that time, opposition to Christianity came primarily from world-denying philosophies like Gnosticism and neo-Platonism. These worldviews were dualistic, teaching that only the spiritual realm was good. The material realm was a place of death, decay and corruption. The ultimate goal of life was escape from the “prison house” of the body, and flight to the spiritual heights.
By contrast, Christianity is holistic. Its central claim is that God has actually taken on a physical body — which means the physical world is neither evil nor worthless. The incarnation implies the dignity of life in this world. It represents a frontal assault on dualism.
The implications have reverberated throughout Western history. In Gnosticism, the physical world did not ultimately matter — which meant physical suffering did not matter either. Seeking “enlightenment” meant cultivating an attitude of detachment, even indifference.
By contrast, writes C.S. Lewis, “Christianity is a fighting religion.” By teaching the high value of the physical world, it motivates people to fight evil, disease and oppression in the world.
As Indian author Vishal Mangalwadi notes, the idea that God became human “eventually became the philosophical foundation for the West’s humanism.”
The centrality of the Incarnation just about guarantees that opponents of Christianity will seek to debunk it. The Gnostics taught that Jesus was really an avatar from a higher, spiritual plane who only appeared to take on a material body, then returned to a higher state of being. His earthly birth, life, and death on the cross were not real.
In the Gnostic text Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus is portrayed as saying, “I did not die in reality, but in appearance.” All the while “I was rejoicing in the height over all . . . laughing at their ignorance.”
The Gnostics found it laughable to think the spiritual realm could enter into the ordinary physical world.
Today it has become hip to revert to Gnosticism. Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code” and Elaine Pagels in “The Gnostic Gospels” claim that Gnosticism gives an earlier — hence more authentic — account of Jesus than the one given by the New Testament.
But their claim flies in the face of historical evidence, which shows that the Gnostics’ writings were later, not earlier. In fact, they were an attempt to co-opt Christianity into their dualistic worldview.
They sought to force the historical Jesus out of the physical world, which can be known rationally and tested empirically, by transferring him to an unknowable realm of “faith.”
As Anglican bishop N.T. Wright explains, the Gnostics translated the Gospel “into a private spirituality and a dualistic cosmology.”
Today secularists do pretty much the same thing. Modern secular thought has its own dualism: It treats only the physical world as knowable and testable, while locking everything else — mind, spirit, morality, meaning — into the realm of private, subjective feelings. The so-called fact/value split.
St. Francis’ Nativity scene represents an emphatic rejection of dualism in any form. As Rick Pearcey writes, “Quite unlike ‘faith’ in a progressively fragmented world today, the data about the birth of Christ in the Christmas of history is about a tangible world and knowable events in an objective universe of space and time, cause and effect.”
These revolutionary implications have grown fuzzy, especially among those whose Christianity functions primarily as a political “label.” This may explain why President Obama could speak at a Christmas fund-raiser about “my Christian faith” and yet support abortion, a cruel assault on “the least of these” and on the dignity of human life itself.
When St. Francis erected the first manger scene, he was not just boosting people’s holiday mood. He was affirming the significance of the human world, because God himself had entered into it.
Those truly are “tidings of great joy.”