A Story of New Beginnings
ST. MARTINS’S ESSENTIALS 2021
In The First Christmas, Stephen Mitchell brings the Nativity story to vivid life as never before. A narrative that is only sketched out in two Gospels becomes fully realized here with nuanced characters and a setting that reflects the culture of the time. Mitchell has suffused the birth of Jesus with a sense of beauty that will delight and astonish readers.
In this version, we see the world through the eyes of a Whitmanesque ox and a visionary donkey, starry-eyed shepherds and Zen-like wise men, each of them providing a unique perspective on a scene that is, in Western culture, the central symbol for good tidings of great joy. Rather than superimposing later Christian concepts onto the Annunciation and Nativity scenes, he imagines Mary and Joseph experiencing the angelic message as a young Jewish woman and man living in the year 4 bce might have experienced it, with terror, dismay, and ultimate acceptance. In this context, their yes becomes an act of great moral courage.
Readers of every background will be enchanted by this startlingly beautiful reimagining of the Christmas tale.
“I love The First Christmas. What a charming way Stephen Mitchell has found to tell my favorite story of all, the Nativity, character by character (I love the donkey and the ox), with wise and thrilling interludes about God, reality, truth.” –Anne Lamott
“Christ’s birth is always happening. And yet if it doesn’t happen in me, how can it help me? Everything depends on that.”
– Meister Eckhart
At the Passover seder, a Hasidic rabbi told his chief disciple to go outside and see if the Messiah had come. “But Rabbi,” the disciple said, pointing to his heart, “if the Messiah has come, wouldn’t you know it in here?” “Ah,” said the rabbi, pointing to his own heart. “In here, the Messiah has already come.”
IN WRITING THIS BOOK, I wanted to see where the givens of the Nativity story would lead. My only agenda was to inhabit the characters. I hope that I’ve done this in a way that is respectful to Christians, but I have written for Jews and Muslims as well, and for secular readers who find meaning and delight in the story. The beauty of the traditional narrative is self-evident in the annunciation to Mary, the triumph over jealousy and distrust that Joseph must achieve, all the beloved details of the Nativity scene—the snow (not in the Gospels), the ox and donkey (ditto), the star (Matthew), the angels (Luke), the shepherds (Luke) and wise men (Matthew): the poetry of a new beginning, when winter turns toward the sun, and the joy of an imagined child who, in the words of Isaiah, is given to us all.
Like every magical tale, this one asks us to temporarily suspend our disbelief and expand our imaginations. Jews and atheists will need to accept the angelic visit and the virginal conception as givens of the story. Christians will need to take a leap of unfaith, over the Christology of the early Church, and place themselves inside the minds of Jewish characters living in the year 4 bce, fifty-five years before the earliest Christian texts were written. There would have been no way for a historical Mary or Joseph to make sense of religious concepts like Jesus as the preexisting third person of the Trinity or as a savior who by his sacrificial death atones for the sins of those who believe in him. “Messiah” would have meant one thing only: the fully human being, announced by the prophets, whose kingship would bring complete and lasting peace to the earth. In the same way, the phrase “son of God” would have meant either a Jewish king or a righteous man; the Christian concept of an “only-begotten son” would have seemed obscene and pagan to any Jew, and profoundly disrespectful, if not insane.
I have imagined Mary as a very young woman, in love with her future husband. Christian tradition turns Joseph into an old man, so that Mary’s love for him might have nothing sexual about it, and it sees Mary as a proto-nun who has taken a vow of perpetual virginity, though for a pious Jewish girl such a vow would have been unthinkable, since it would transgress God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply. But the Gospel stories say nothing about Joseph’s age. As a man about to be married, he would probably be in his early or mid twenties. If Mary loves him and wants to have his children (later they have six children together), then the announcement that she is to get pregnant without him, by the Holy Spirit descending on her, would at first seem appalling.
Mary would also be aware of her beloved’s probable reaction to the news that she is pregnant, not to speak of the reaction of the whole village. It would form the background to her yes: the prospect of universal contempt—of being seen by everyone she loved and by everyone else as a whore. “The angel,” Søren Kierkegaard astutely pointed out, “didn’t appear to the other young girls in Israel and say, ‘Don’t despise Mary; the extraordinary is happening to her.’ No, the angel came to Mary alone, and no one was able to understand her. Has any woman ever been as humiliated as Mary was, and isn’t it true here that the one God blesses He curses in the same breath? This is the spirit’s view of Mary, and she is not—it is revolting that I have to say this, but it is even more revolting that people have thoughtlessly and sanctimoniously depicted her in this way—she is not a lady lounging in fancy dress and playing with an infant god.”
You may also be surprised that in my Nativity scenes there is little focus on the baby. We usually imagine the Nativity through the filter of Christian iconography, in which the divine child is the cynosure of neighboring eyes, worshiped by humans and angels. But for Jewish characters like my shepherds and wise men, worshiping a human being would be sheer paganism. Their focus would be on what the child is about to bring to the world, on the world he is about to bring into existence, not on the child himself.
Mary and Joseph are, of course, at the center of the story. Each one ends up acting with a moral courage that is beyond praise. It is their courage that makes the spirit of Christmas possible.
Chapter One: The Innkeeper
IT WAS SNOWING AGAIN as they arrived, the man and the girl. They had been on the road for six days, traveling fifteen miles a day except when she felt too unwell to continue. The man went on foot, leading the donkey. The girl on the donkey was wrapped in an extra cloak that covered her head, her back, and her swollen belly. Much of the time she barely noticed the road they were traveling on. Her attention was focused on the child inside her, and she would track its movements with a fascinated delight. Sometimes she would talk to it or sing it a lullaby.
They had tried to find lodging at four inns already, but Bethlehem was swarming with pilgrims who had gathered there for the census. Half the population of the country, it seemed, were scions of the house of David; since the official genealogies had been destroyed six hundred years before, during the conquest of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity, anyone could assert that he was of royal blood, however down-at-heel he might look. The inns were full. Again and again the man had been turned away, each time with a brusque no. Now night was falling.
The innkeeper—a burly man in his forties with a tangled brown beard and a diagonal scar over his left eyebrow—told them they would have to wait, he would get to them as soon as he could; he was very busy, with a dozen requests to attend to. All the rooms were occupied, some of them with double or triple the usual number of guests, and the broad covered courtyard was so packed with bodies that he had to thread his way among them in order to bring someone wine or food. It took all his expertise to make his guests comfortable, or not overly uncomfortable. His wife and their two sons and three daughters were just as busy. It had been this way for weeks.
An hour later, when he returned to them, he paused to take a better look. The girl seemed to be fourteen or fifteen years old, and she was very pregnant. She stood with modestly downcast eyes, but beneath the shawl, enough of her face was visible that he could see how pretty she was: fine features, the nose delicately arched, the lips full and shapely, though chapped by the bitter cold. She was wearing a roughly woven light-brown woolen tunic that fell to her ankles, and over it a cloak dyed a slightly darker brown. The man was in his twenties, of average height, about five feet four, heavy-boned, with large hands and a full, reddish-brown beard. He was dressed in the same kind of tunic, which came to his knees and was fastened at the waist by a thick leather belt. His cloak reached midcalf and had the prescribed tassels at its four corners.
It turned out to be one more hard-luck story, as the innkeeper had suspected. He had heard many during the previous weeks. Royal descendants had asked him for a deduction in the price or suggested that he waive the price entirely, given the honor they were bestowing on him by their mere presence. Some of them, with tears in their eyes, had traced the downward descent of their family over the past six centuries. Some had paraded their grimy children before him and begged for his indulgence.
Given all his pressing obligations, he felt tempted to shoo the young couple away. He could do only so much, and in good conscience he wouldn’t squeeze one more person into the already dangerously overcrowded courtyard. He wasn’t God, after all, who could create something out of nothing. He was only a decent man trying to do his best in a situation that would have tested the patience of Job. No, they would have to be on their way. He was about to say this when something stopped him.
What was it? The young man looked composed, but it was obvious how weary he and the girl were and how close she was to giving birth. That wasn’t his problem, of course, and he brushed away the brief thought of responsibility. But there was something in the young man’s demeanor—a forthrightness, a sincerity—that touched his heart. “Is there no place at all for us?” The voice was calm and manly. There was no pleading in the tone, no attempt to persuade him or appeal to his sense of pity. As he looked into the young man’s eyes, he felt as though a current of sympathy had somehow established itself between them. He was embarrassed by this; it was bad business practice. But he had to acknowledge it. A decision had been made somewhere inside him—in spite of him or without his conscious assent. They could stay.
But how? There was certainly no room for them, and he couldn’t ask any of his guests to leave. Suddenly an image arose in his mind, of the small, dilapidated stable in back of the inn, with its four narrow stalls and its single inhabitant, an ox that he rented to farmers during the season of plowing. The stable’s roof was damaged, and there were loose stones on two of its sides, but it would provide shelter for the young couple. No time for thanks; they must follow him, quickly.
He threw a second cloak over his shoulders, lit a torch, and walked outside with them. Their small gray donkey was tethered to one of the posts in front of the inn. Snow covered her back and neck. When she saw them, she uttered a bray that was like a pump gone dry. The girl undid the rope and walked behind the two men with quick steps, hurrying to stay inside the circle of torchlight.
The stable smelled of straw and manure. Flies congregated in the ox’s stall, crawled over the piles of dung, and reconnoitered on the walls. There were shallow stone troughs in each of the four stalls and enough clean straw to make beds for two people. The innkeeper placed the torch in the rusted iron holder on the wall, said good night, and was out the door, not even stopping long enough to listen to their thanks.
When the door closed, the man led the donkey into the stall next to the ox’s. He put hay in the trough and a bucket of water beside it. (He had to break through the ice on its surface.) Then he undid his traveling sack and walked across to the stall they had chosen as their living quarters. By the time he got there, the girl was fast asleep on the straw.
THERE IS NO INNKEEPER in Luke’s version of the Nativity story—just the very moving statement that Mary wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. But if there is an inn, there must be an innkeeper. And why not imagine him as generously as possible—as not harshly turning the young couple away but doing the best he can? I feel great affection for this man, who in spite of himself does the right thing, for the right reason.
In an archetypal story, as in a dream, you are each one of the characters. Can you find your way into the innkeeper? It’s probably easy to remember a time when you felt too busy to listen to someone in need. It may be more difficult to locate an experience when there was a current of sympathy between you and a complete stranger. But this happens to everyone. Some kind of decision has been made, even against your conscious will.
What made the decision? This is as fundamental a question as “Who am I?” There’s no answer outside the question. But if you penetrate deeply enough, you’ll see very clearly that you are not the doer, as the Bhagavad Gita helpfully points out. The innkeeper was an ordinary man, but perhaps after the fruitful chaos of the census had died down and all the pilgrims had departed and left Bethlehem the small sleepy town it had been, he remembered the moment when something beyond himself had made him extraordinary.
Chapter Two: The Ox
THOUGH I AM SOMEONE who enjoys his solitude, I am a sociable fellow by nature. Happiness loves company, as they say misery does. So when my master opened the door and brought in two humans and a donkey, I was delighted. I lowed with pleasure. This may have seemed rude, but I couldn’t help it.
My master was out the door in a trice, letting in another blast of cold air. The man paused for a few moments, then brought the donkey into the stall next to mine and walked back to the woman. I poked my head over the partition to get a better look at my new neighbor. She was a jenny with a coat of lovely light-gray hair, quite young—five years old was my guess—and nine or ten hands high, which is on the short side for our region. She seemed friendly enough. She lifted her head toward me, and we touched muzzles in fellowship. But she was obviously exhausted, and after that brief acknowledgment she moved over to a corner of the stall, lay down, and fell asleep. Donkeys have the reputation of being temperamentally difficult, but I have never found that to be so. Of course, I have never plowed with one of them, since that is forbidden by law. But I have seen quite a few pass through the inn during my many years here, and on the whole they have seemed to me exemplary creatures: patient, industrious, and uncomplaining.
Now some of you, I am sure, assume that my attitude toward donkeys would be rather condescending. I would be entitled to that, you think, because first of all I am so much bigger and second, even more importantly, I am kosher and they are not, since they neither have cloven hoofs nor chew the cud. But you would be jumping to an unjustified conclusion. I pride myself on my tolerance. I am large not only in body but also in mind, and I believe I am being accurate in stating that I have never held a prejudice against unclean animals. As a matter of fact, the issue of ritual cleanness doesn’t enter my consideration at all when I judge someone’s character. I can think of a number of particularly foolish cows and sheep that I have turned up my muzzle at, while on the other hand some of my fondest acquaintanceships have been formed with donkeys and with the occasional camel or dromedary who has lodged here. (I haven’t met any pigs, but I like to believe that I could keep an open mind even toward them, despite their appalling reputation.)
I couldn’t help thinking what a pity it is that donkeys have never learned to chew the cud—nor have humans, for that matter. It’s difficult for me to imagine what life must be like without it. Extremely stressful, I would think. We ruminative animals have been particularly blessed in our capacity for calm deliberation, and I have often thought that this is what distinguishes us, in terms of spiritual maturity, from other creatures. If you spend many hours a day chewing things over—not just reflecting on the events of your day but breaking them down into their constituent parts and truly digesting them—there is not much in life that can disturb you. People say that in India we are worshipped as gods or as manifestations of the supreme Lord. This should surprise no one, since India is a land of great spirituality, and it is only natural that humans who meditate should honor animals who ruminate. In any case, whether or not our spiritual qualities are recognized, we are, generally speaking, as mature a species as any I have encountered. Humans can be cruel, camels foul-tempered, sheep flighty, donkeys raucous, horses high-strung, and pigs… well, I won’t even go there. But there are no creatures so dependably placid in any contingency as we oxen are.
Now it is true that bulls have a justifiably mixed reputation. If you get a bull riled up, beware! But you must understand that bulls have a difficult set of expectations superimposed onto their essentially peaceful nature. They know that their livelihood and their very existence depend on their ability to generate offspring. If they fall short, the ax awaits them, and the butcher’s block. And with all that testosterone coursing through their limbs, it’s no wonder that they can be aggressive when challenged. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I was castrated in my youth and was spared not just the impulse toward dominance but every kind of sexual frenzy. All that snorting and bellowing and pawing and thrusting: who would want to live a life of such unremitting ego? Of course, bulls would be far worse off if they didn’t have their cud-chewing to fall back on. I am not trying to malign them—on the contrary. To my mind, however, the combination of great physical strength and sustained calm is something that belongs only to the ox, and in my humble opinion, as the epitome of imperturbability, we are one of the sovereign miracles of God’s creation.
But I digress. I stood watching the jenny as she slept, and I watched the two humans, and I thought how cozy it was to ruminate inside the stable with my new neighbors. There was hardly a sound—just some rustling of the straw across the aisle and the snow falling steadily and softly on the roof. Then the rustling stopped. The humans were asleep, the donkey was asleep, and only I was left to watch over them. I chewed my cud slowly, savoring the ambrosial paste, and in the torchlight I could see the clouds of my breath float up and disperse in the frigid air. And so it continued for an hour or two. A pleasant, uneventful night, I thought: a silent night, a night of companionable peace. But what can we ever know? If I have learned anything during my many years of contemplation, it is that the future always eludes our grasp. Sometimes a surprise is waiting for us at the emptiest corner of the field.
And what a surprise this was! All at once the woman began moaning. I recognized that sound. It was not a distress call exactly but the sound of great effort and pain. Before I came to live here, I lodged in a stable with many cows, ewes, and nannies, and I heard hundreds of births take place. The memories came back to me in a flash. Those pitiable moos, bleats, and baas were like the sounds the woman was making: the price of motherhood. I am grateful that I never had to go through that kind of pain myself, but what male could be so insensitive as not to feel his heart quiver in sympathy? I expected the woman to be finished in less than an hour, as with the births I had witnessed, but the moaning and screaming lasted much longer than that. The man sat beside her, wiping her brow, holding her in his arms, talking to her, singing to her. His voice was deep and comforting.
Finally, she pushed her child out into the world. It was a tiny creature, its skin dark red, almost purple. For a few moments I was concerned that it might not be breathing, but even as I chewed on that thought, the child broke into a lusty howl. The man picked it up and held it to the woman’s breast. I was sorry to see that neither of them licked its body clean; but oh well, human ways are not our ways. The child continued to wail. After fifteen minutes or so it wore itself out, poor thing, and fell asleep.
I had never seen a human birth before, and this one moved me deeply. The donkey saw it too; she had found it impossible to stay asleep amid the uproar. So the two of us watched the two of them, and then we watched the three of them. I don’t know what the donkey was feeling; she knew the man and the woman far better than I did, of course, but I can’t imagine anyone being happier for them than I was. Joy took the shape of my body and filled it from my hoofs out to my tail and the tips of my horns.
There is an old prophecy among the humans here that someday there will be no more suffering in the world. There will be neither predators nor prey: wolves will dwell in peace with lambs, lions will eat hay just as we oxen do, leopards will lie down with kids and not ever be tempted to turn on them with their murderous teeth and claws. Personally, I can’t imagine how this will happen; lions, for example, don’t have the internal organs that would allow them to digest hay. But people say that what seems impossible to us creatures is possible for God. They also say that a little child will lead the wolves and lambs, the leopards and kids, the calves and the lions. I would like to see that parade. I would like to meet that child.
Perhaps someday, in spite of common sense, it will happen. In the meantime, I am glad that God has given me two sharp horns. I feel very protective toward the child who was born here tonight. If wolves or lions come here to harm him, I will chase them away, peaceable fellow though I am. I will stand in front of the child with lowered head, to show them that I mean business. If they come any closer, I will gore them and toss them over my shoulders. No one will harm this child—not if I have anything to do with it.
IT’S PROBABLY UNNECESSARY to mention this, but I have now stepped out of the ox and back into the authorial “I.” I do this with no regrets, but I must tell you that I felt very comfortable as an ox. His mixture of intense solidity and immovable calm is something I know well. And the flavor of pride? I can find that too in myself. Whether it is as charming in me as it is in him is an open question.
He is, as I am, a peaceable fellow. But those horns he’s provided with—he knows instinctively how to use them. Here too I can find the equivalent in myself, though I have used mine only once, in defending a principle. To my great surprise, I enjoyed using them. Actually, it was fascinating to face the rogue matador, then gore and toss him. (This metaphor is getting out of hand.)
But enough about me for the moment.
How does the present chapter connect to the Nativity story? Well, the ox was a given, since he’s part of our folkloric legacy. His messianic musings are another connection. He is open to all possibilities, as anyone with a Whitmanesque largeness of mind would naturally be. But he is rightly skeptical of Isaiah’s promise that the wild will be domesticated someday. I too can imagine a world in which our equivalent of swords have been transformed into our equivalent of plowshares. But lions eating hay? Wolves dwelling with lambs? Not going to happen, nor should it. Would you want the magnificent, dangerous world of nature to become a Disney cartoon in which bluebirds circle about your head, while serape-clad squirrels serenade you in the shade? The vision that came to Isaiah out of his great longing is not something any mature person would want to see realized.
What we long for in the outer world we can have within us, as Meister Eckhart and the Hasidic rabbi quoted above realized. When the inner Messiah comes, we don’t need an outer one.
– Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird
“The First Christmas is a wonderful book, tender and rich with bursts of humor, filled with curious contrivances and surprises. Reading it felt like opening a brightly-wrapped Christmas present and finding a second box (also brightly wrapped) inside, and inside that box a third, and then another, and another, and another. Until, at the very center, in a tiny box, there is a diamond: the wisdom contained within this telling.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love
“Stephen Mitchell’s The First Christmas is a wholly original and deeply inspired book. I’m swept away by his language: simple, concrete, and fetching. Mitchell grants us access here to the kingdom of heaven that lies within us, folded in a simple story.”
– Jay Parini, author of Jesus: The Human Face of God
“As he has done before to our enlightenment and delight, Stephen Mitchell takes an ancient text and opens it and illuminates it for our time. And now, the nativity story! Who knew there were so many perspectives from ox to innkeeper, shepherds to seekers, to Mitchell himself—all helping us see this seminal event in heartwarming, eye-opening complexity and compassion. As is often said about an important and riveting and life-changing event: you had to be there. In The First Christmas, Mitchell puts us there, and the birth and rebirth happen in the reader as well—no matter how well we know the story. Mitchell’s illumined text is a star that leads us to a new understanding of the Bethlehem moments in our lives.”
–Julia Alvarez, author of Afterlife
“Magical… An imaginative tour de force.”
“An enchanting and vividly reimagined look at the Nativity story.”
—The Sunday Paper
“More a stirring tale than a religious philosophy, The First Christmas can be enjoyed by people of any faith.”
—New York Journal of Books
“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. Stephen Mitchell harnesses both his impressive scholarship and his Buddhist beliefs to explore the ideas of faith, sacrifice, acceptance, and love…. “Salvation, 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.” 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.”
—Clea Simon, Boston Globe