When I was growing up, Christmas meant everything. It was that time when you got a new shirt and pair of shoes, when you had the best meal and when joy was all over town. As the years have progressed, I hear people lamenting that Christmas has lost meaning and that it is now no longer what it used to be.
It could be true that Christmas has lost meaning and that, other than the profligate merry-making and family reunions, it does not mean much anymore. These last few days, I have been obsessing over what Christmas really is all about. If the subject at the heart of this festivity is Jesus Christ himself, what do we know about his birth and the circumstances that led to the nativity? What really happened on that starry night that we are told about and how were the first hours preceding his birth and the few days and months after his birth?
The Bible has been woefully unhelpful in this regard. Of the three synoptic gospels, Mathew, Luke and Mark, it is only Luke that gives what might be considered a more detailed account of the nativity. At least Luke attempts to narrate the events that preceded the birth of Jesus, beginning from the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (John, who was Jesus cousin, was the precursor of the messiah) right up to the birth and initiation of Jesus. The Gospel of John is not interested in the birth of Jesus but rather on his ministry and reason for his Coming.
The gospels also tell us about the shepherds who kept watch at night and the gospel of Mathew also has an account of the visit of the three wise men. That, unfortunately is all that is there about the birth of Jesus. On this sketchy narration about the subject that has been the core of Christmas over the ages, we base our course for joy and celebration.
Lately, however, I have been reading a refreshingly different narration about the birth of The Christ. It is all so well documented in a book called “The Poem of the Man God” by Maria Valtorta. Valtorta was born in 1897 in Italy to a Calvary officer and a French teacher. In her life she experienced visions in which, through some interior locution, she saw the life of Jesus in such deracinatingly vivid way that she might have thought that she was watching a movie.
Jesus and Mary would appear to her and unfold the visions. They would instruct her to write all that she saw in the visions. Struck by a debilitating disease, she spent most of her life entombed in her house where she wrote almost 15,000 pages of the account of Jesus’ life, beginning from the birth of the virgin Mary, the crucifixion and death of Jesus and the assumption of the Virgin Mary.
When the first editions of Maria’s writing were published, they caused quite a bit of confusion within religious circles. But they were also warmly received in Italy and other parts of the world, seeing as they did that they offered a more detailed and refreshing account of the life of Jesus than what the gospels offered. In one of her declarations about the book that came to be known as “The Poem of the Man God”, and which initially had been given the title “The Poem Jesus,” Maria wrote, “I can affirm that I have had ho human source to be able to know what I write, and what, even while writing, I often do not understand.”
At first the Vatican proscribed the book and lumped it into the category of the “forbidden books.” But upon further examination the book has come to be recognised as a “gospel” which neither substitutes nor changes the Gospel, but rather narrates it “integrating and illuminating it, with the declared purposes of reviving in men’s hearts the understanding and love for Christ and His Mother.”
It is from this book then we learn about who the shepherds that kept watch in the night were. While the gospels do not even tell us their names, the book names them as Elias, Levi, Samuel, Jonah, Isaac, Tobias, Jonathan, Daniel, John, Simeon, Joseph and Benjamin who were twins. The book dramatically narrates how, upon arriving at the manger guided by a star, the shepherds noticed that the Virgin Mary did not have enough milk in her breasts to suckle the infant Jesus. They thus brought her a lamb that had just birthed from which She and Joseph drew the creamy milk they fed the infant with. It is also the shepherds, notably the one called Elias, who were sent to announce the birth of Jesus to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and Zacharias the priest.
Much of what is narrated in Valtorta’s work is illuminating. It fills the aching void that has been left in the gospels about the life of Jesus. While we know, for instance that the first miracle that Jesus performed was in Cana of Galilee, the book documents many other miracles that Jesus privately did, even when he was still a small boy. While playing with his cousins, one account reads, he came across a dead bird. He looked at it with a lot of pity, lifted it and blew some air into it. The bird resurrected. Astonished, the other boys ran to tell their parents what Jesus had done. Only His mother knew the significance of that act.
There are many other books that have lately come up and which narrate in this kind of detail the birth and life of Jesus. One other book is “the Life of St Joseph” by Maria Cecilia Baij. This one tells the story of Jesus’ birth and life from the eyes of his Foster Father, Joseph.
We have been programmed to think that anything outside of the Bible is apocryphal or counter the truths that have guided Christendom and its history throughout the ages. Many people regard any account about the life of Jesus or His Mother and his Foster father that is not in the Bible as heretical or lacking in truth.
But the question which I think one should ask is this: Is what is narrated in the Bible about the life of Jesus all there is to him? What happened in the days and years before he started his public ministry which the gospels concentrate on?
From reading Valtorta’s voluminous works (The poem of the Man God for instance comes in five volumes of about 800 pages each) I get the feeling that the gospels have given us a raw deal about the man whose birth we celebrate every Christmas. And because we know very little about Jesus and his life prior to the start of his public ministry, we tend to see his birth in a chimeric way and we contemplate his life from a shallow and nuanced perspective. I am convinced that if we were to read more, we would appreciate Him better and we would give weight to the words of John, who was His beloved apostle and who narrated his works in his gospel. He said “There are also many things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.”
Some of these things that John speaks about are to be found in other texts, not just the Bible.
- Mr Waihenya is a writer and author