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BOOK REVIEW

Away in a manger in ‘The First Christmas’

A new nativity scene emerges in Stephen Mitchell’s contemporary exegesis

Ale+Ale for The Boston Globe

John Milton was likely referring to his own blindness when he penned the line, “they also serve who only stand and wait,” but translator and author Stephen Mitchell seems to have taken it as gospel for his “The First Christmas.” Part fable, part comparative religion study, this contemporary exegesis of the Christian nativity story has something for everyone — and, most likely, much to offend some traditional believers as well.

Mitchell’s predisposition toward the unorthodox is made clear in his bio: “educated at Amherst, the Sorbonne, and Yale; and de-educated through intensive Zen training.” For this odd but charming little book, he harnesses both his impressive scholarship and his Buddhist beliefs to explore the ideas of faith, sacrifice, acceptance, and love.

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Taking the two scriptural accounts of Jesus’s birth as his source, Mitchell re-imagines the scene from the points of view of its other characters. At its center are the struggles of Mary and Joseph, whom Mitchell renames Maryam and Yosef as more culturally appropriate for Jews of their era. Following a charming introduction of the generous, frazzled innkeeper doing his best for the weary couple, Mitchell gives us first Maryam. Exhausted but full of love, she’s about to give birth as she follows her husband and the innkeeper to the stable, the best shelter the latter can offer. By this point, she is resigned, almost more of a vehicle for what is to come than a character. But Mitchell takes us back to the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel informs her that she is to bear the baby Jesus, here called Yeshua.

In the passages from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, quoted at the book’s end, Mary accepts her fate readily, almost automatically. But by putting his characters in the reality of their time, Mitchell explores the weighty implications of her compliance. Although young, the Maryam that Mitchell imagines is not naïve; the author depicts her as sexually aware and eager for her marriage. Cognizant of Judaic laws, she knows conceiving a child before her marriage would be “a kind of adultery.” Her husband-to-be would be forced to “put her aside,” and “she would be shamed in the sight of everyone, as a depraved woman.” It’s a concept repugnant to her pious and loving nature but, bowing to the power and magnitude of the angel, she resigns herself to what she expects to be a grim future. By imagining her as a practical young woman, Mitchell highlights the enormity of what she is willing to sacrifice by her acceptance.

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Yosef’s progress charts a similar, if subtler, path. From jealousy and anger, he too moves to acceptance and love — shedding even the shame he felt at having doubted the purity of his bride-to-be. “[i]t didn’t matter. He had come back to her. It was a new beginning.”

If these two humans are the soul of the book, the animals in their company are its heart. In one of the more lighthearted segments, Mitchell imagines an ox, the sole occupant of the stable before the young couple arrive, as a thoughtful observer, playing on the double meaning of “ruminative,” an animal that chews its cud. “I pride myself on my tolerance,” the ox says. But this beast is no saint, and Mitchell gently pricks his pride — as well as his own cross-religious teachings — when he has the ox note that “in India we are worshiped as gods.”

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“This should surprise no one, since India is a land of great spirituality” the ox reasons, explaining, “it is only natural that humans who meditate should honor animals who ruminate.”

The donkey, whose playful narrative ends this short book, has more overt attitude. Accepting the greetings — and some smiles — from the lower angels, she chafes a bit when the cherubim ignore her. Retelling the biblical story of Balaam’s ass, who saved her person from an angelic indiscretion, the donkey explains that her breed’s nature — to serve — is actually a high and proud tradition, matched only by their stubbornness (which she explains as a “refusal to capitulate to authority”). Holding donkeys above such animals as horses, who “lack any capacity for critical thinking,” she nonetheless embodies perfect humility in her love for Maryam. “I am my lady’s handmaid,” she says. “She has only to ask.”

The author’s particular intellectual leanings are most openly expressed in the section on the wise men. Drawing on Hindu sources, including the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, as well as the Jewish Talmud, he envisions the exalted visitors as two Jewish scholars — students of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder — who have spent the previous 17 years in India seeking wisdom. Disciples of a guru who exemplifies “radiant simplicity,” a state of open and absolute acceptance, the two follow a star back to the Holy Land, where they see at a glance the baby Yeshua’s destiny. “[S]alvation, which was another name for freedom, would not come later. It could only come now. It had already come, and it was here for everyone, always.”

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With his deft, conversational style, Mitchell manages to shoehorn this decidedly Zen insight into the Christmas message. The most unorthodox of the re-imaginings, it joins the other viewpoints as good intellectual cud to chew over, which the ox would surely appreciate, and toothsome fare for a long winter’s night.

THE FIRST CHRISTMAS: A Story of New Beginnings

By Stephen Mitchell

St. Martin’s Essentials, 224 pp., $21.99

Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.