Why faith steers clear of details
by John Wijngaards, The Times 8 January 1994, p. 8
Chesterton once rightly remarked that the modern world is filled with people who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. One such dogma is that incarnation — God making contact in human form — is unthinkable. The recent discussion on the magi will have strengthened the bias, for it is on factualities such as did the magi exist, did they visit the newborn Jesus, that the credibility of Christian belief is perceived to rest.
Let us look at the facts. The story of the magi in Matthew’s gospel is a theological reflection known as a midrash. Matthew finds seven prophecies that tie the Messiah to specific localities: Bethlehem (Micah 5,2), Judah (Numbers 24,17), Jerusalem (Isaiah 60,1-7), Egypt (Hosea, 11,1), Ramah (Jeremiah 31,15), Galilee (Isaiah 9,1-2) and Nazareth (Isaiah 11,1). Employing a form of meditation, he weaves an account in which the newborn saviour touches on all these places. Yet in Matthew’s view, Christ transcends all of them.
Where does God-with-us belong? Or rather, to which race does he belong? Here Matthew takes his cue from the vision in Isaiah 60. A light shines on Zion when kings ride in from the East, bearing gifts. Foreigners throng to join God’s peoplfe and build a new Jerusalem. Here Matthew sees the answer. Christ was bom to be God’s healing hand for every human being. In putting the magi centre stage, Matthew anticipates the end of his gospel: “Go out to the whole world! Make disciples of all nations!”
Of course, we can still research the factual basis of a visit by wise men. Persian astrologers were the scientists of their time. The passing of Halley’s comet at around 8BC may have sent them on a flurry of expeditions to explore its cause. But such detail misses the point of Matthew’s reflection. He wants us to ponder the universality of the Christ event. It is this event that is historical, not details of his meditation.
Reading A Christmas Carol by Dickens we waste time asking if Scrooge was an actual person or if he saw Marley’s ghost. In Dickens’s account this is not to the point. Dickens warns the Scrooge in each one of us that we will ruin our lives if we do not learn to be human and to give.
Similarly, Matthew’s magi teach us to go on our journey to look for God who reaches out to us, as they did. Nor does Matthew’s use of an occasional midrash brand his gospel as unhistorical. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories do not dismiss his political satire or his biographies as fiction. Matthew presents a reliable account of Jesus’s life.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a fictional character, but a real person who changed the course of history. But, throughout his gospel, Matthew is concerned with the meaning of the facts he presents; most of all. with the meaning of incarnation. God, unspeakable mystery of mysteries, came to meet us, and still meets us, in a human image. Can’t be? But then, is the incredible not often truer than fiction?
John Wijngaards is a Roman Catholic theologian and director of Housetop, which produces video courses for adult faith formation