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The First Christmas–Eastern philosophical take on the Nativity story

The First Christmas

by Stephen Mitchell

While I am not a theological scholar, I have been a Christian for over sixty years. Those are years in which I have studied the Bible, and God has grown my faith. When the author of this book gives an interpretation that I disagree with, I can accept that as a difference of opinion. An example in Stephen Mitchell’s The First Christmas is the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. In the Bible this event is reported in chapter one of Luke. I believe this account literally, that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in a physical form and spoke to her in an audible voice. In fact, there is a dialogue recorded there. The author wants to interpret the appearance as a bright light (“the best I could come up with,” he says) and its communication as “empathy and telepathy,” nothing “so gross as speech.” Based on the writings in Luke, the author is creating a fiction that, though unconfirmed, could have happened. Many describe near death experiences as a comforting, blinding, white light. So, here, the author is using his imagination within the context of an angel visiting Mary.

What is more believable in his telling of the story are the extensive thought processes that Mary must surely have engaged in during the days and months following the angel’s announcement that she had been chosen to bear the Son of God as He comes to Earth in human form. The Bible doesn’t give details of all of her thoughts and feelings, but it does record her song of praise often called The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Luke also shows us that her response is meditative.

There were shepherds who had an angelic visitation. After that they came to worship the baby Jesus, explaining how they found the little family in Bethlehem filled with visitors paying their taxes. “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Using common sense and based on Biblical evidence that Mary was a reflective person, the inner dialogue the author creates is believable, even if you don’t agree with all the fictional details.

There are some larger issues with this novel, however, that bother me. Mary says “No one had ever prophesied that the Messiah would never die.” This statement skirts the issue that there were many Old Testament prophecies which predict the Messiah would be resurrected to reign in His eternal kingdom. Her statement feels like a deliberate distraction in the text. Author Mitchell is clear that Mary would know the Jewish teachings. Therefore, she would have been aware of the many prophesies that Jesus would be resurrected and sit on the right hand of God the Father (Psalm 110:1). Psalm 49:15 says “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me.” Interpretations are acceptable, but contradictions are not.

The format of the book is interesting. The author states “my only agenda was to inhabit the characters.” He tries to put himself into an ancient time and experience it as each of the characters in the Nativity story might have. As he looks at the role each person or animal had in this pivotal moment, the author makes the decision to tell the story in the third person for the people and first person for the animals. He separates the chapters with an “Interlude” which is his opportunity to reveal his thoughts as an author and provide some background information. This format (which he explains in an Interlude is based on “the glorified sestet of an Italian sonnet) is a good choice for this book. Unfortunately, the author deviates in the second part of Mary’s story and interrupts the tale as he inserts his “authorial I” into her story rather than waiting for the Interlude. This happens again in Joseph’s story. In general I found Joseph’s tale more convincingly told. Oddly though, Mary and Joseph were approached in the book by angels who were totally different in appearance with Joseph’s angel not even culturally appropriate to the time period.

The section of The First Christmas that tells of the visit of the wise men is an elaborate fictional tale of two Jewish scholars who travel to the East studying Buddhism and other mystic philosophies that concentrate on meditation and finding the god within. It deviates from Scripture in many ways, most notably in the visions of the future of Jesus and his family that the men have as they sit with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. (In the book, they visit the family in the stable whereas most Christians believe this visit occurred somewhat later as the Bible says the wise men or magi went to a house.) If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and He was with God from before the creation of the world, as set forth in John 1:1-3, then much of this chapter is disturbing. They envision a confused young man, estranged from His family, and perhaps mentally deranged. A reading of any one of the four gospels shows anything but what they see for His future. He was fully man and fully God. Their supposed vision is not in character. They even shortcut and omit important parts of His death, fantasize his burial in a mass grave, and totally neglect His resurrection.

The last major section focuses on the donkey and is my favorite. The donkey tell the Nativity story from his perspective. Recalling ancient donkey traditions, he retells the Biblical story of Balaam’s donkey who could both see angels and could talk. He points out the good qualities of donkeys—intelligence, honesty, service, dignity, and trustworthiness.

I have an admiration for the author as a multi-lingual translator, well-versed in many Eastern religions and philosophies. He possesses a great imagination and makes connections from various works of literature. I hope that he will return to the Bible to connect with Jesus in a personal relationship. I don’t regret reading The First Christmas as an intellectual exercise, but I don’t recommend it as an Advent activity or as a pleasure read.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5

Category: Religion & Spirituality, General Fiction (Adult)

Publication: November 9, 2021—St. Martin’s Press

Memorable Lines:

[From the chapter Yosef (Joseph)] Where was the Lord now? Not here, not amid this swirling chaos. But if the Lord was not with him, it was his own fault. He knew that. God had not left him; he had left God. It could be no other way.

[From the chapter Yosef—speaking of Maryam (Mary)] She was graced with a quality he had been striving for all his life, ever since he had realized what his purpose, what the purpose of every Jew, was: to love God with all his heart and to fulfill His commandments as impeccably and with as much joy as he could summon.

[From the chapter The Donkey] …throughout the day angels from every order of the hierarchy descending to take a peek at the new little visitor. They don’t knock or announce themselves; they just fly in through the roof or the walls, without so much as a by-your-leave, and nobody greets or even notices them. When they see me, though, they nod to acknowledge my presence and to let me know that they know I know.

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