Pious Fantasy and the Liberty of the Believer

Once upon a time, on the Internet, someone from an Eastern Orthodox background posted a little note concerning the Feast of the Holy Innocents. According to this post there is apparently an old Orthodox tradition that the number of those slain by Herod was 14,000–a rather steep number for a tiny village like Bethlehem.

Someone else then wrote in and asked where the figure of 14,000 came from. In reply, the Orthodox poster said the figure derives from an apocryphal book called the Protoevangelium of James.

At this point, a somewhat less sympathetic poster chimed into the discussion and commented (concerning the 14,000 figure) that “This is just another pious fantasy propagated by the Church.” By this he meant it is one more example of myths and legends pressed down on believers like so many other false Catholic and Orthodox traditions which add to the pure word of God in Scripture.

Now I found this complaint odd since the Protoevangelium of James is one of the many early works of Christian imagination which the Church specifically excluded from the pure word of God in Scripture precisely because it was not reflective of apostolic tradition. If the Church is nefariously trying to pollute the Scripture, excluding false writings from its canon is a very peculiar way to go about it. This was made even odder by the fact that, at other times and by other writers I have seen the exact opposite charge leveled against the Church: namely, that the exclusion of this and other fanciful bits of writing was done by an evil authoritarian Church bent on imposing its dogmatic spin on the canon and fearful of the free human imagination at play in the realm of the spiritual.

Any stigma, it seems, will do to beat a dogma.

But that still leaves us with a question. Namely, if one of these critics is wrong, is the other one right? Is the Church lax and lazy, stupidly drinking in any fable? Or is she stiff and squinting, ruthlessly crushing the slightest variation from her teachings?

Perhaps the way to begin is to point out that both these charges are rather cartoonish. They exaggerate some real quality of the Church to grotesque proportions and so lose sight both of the opposite quality and of the large middle ground of sanity which the Church, in fact, occupies. In short, they are unbalanced.

For unlike both these cartoons, the Church does not perceive quite the same black and white dichotomy between her authority and the liberty of the believer. For all her insistence on doctrinal accuracy concerning matters of faith and morals, she does not and never has frowned on the luxuriant growth of local customs, imaginative pieties and even legends as long as they do not crowd in upon the essence of her gospel. That is because she does not frown on essential human things, of which the human gift and art of storytelling is a shining jewel.

This would explain why, on the one hand, the Protoevangelium was barred from the canon, yet without the Church therefore feeling obliged to annihilate every trace of the yarn from the Christian imagination as somehow inherently evil. Rather, (as is the way with splendid stories containing no real disastrous evil to them) elements of the tale (like the 14,000 tally) entered into local custom and legend to dress out the essence of the gospel as we have it from Scripture. With the Church’s blessing.

To some of my Protestant brothers and sisters, it seems somehow like playing with fire to allow these elements of the fabulous or fictional to creep into popular piety. Yet here in the West, Christians of every stripe sing “We Three Kings” every Christmas and give the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar to the Magi (who number three only in legend). We find our souls nourished by Christmas trees, Advent candles and such sweet stories as “The Other Wise Man” or the Little Drummer Boy. And we find such legendry does no harm to the facts of the gospel. Rather, it is simply an example of the Christian’s perfectly human liberty to tell a good tale, coin a custom and dress out genuine history and theology in the homely cloth of our own woven imaginations.

Likewise then, neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians mistake such frippery as the 14,000 figure for the essential teaching of the gospel. Rather, they know that the Church draws a distinction between Tradition and traditions. Tradition (Big T) includes such unalterable items as the canon of Scripture (Scripture, after all, does not say what books constitute the canon so it falls to Tradition to say so), the Trinity, the Resurrection, the hypostatic union, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception and other items of de fide, non-negotiable, dogmatic content.

But small “t” traditions are myriad and arise, not necessarily from the apostolic teaching which the bishops preserve, but from the heart and minds of a thousand cultures and tongues. Thus, it is quite inaccurate to talk of the hierarchical Church’s “propagation of pious fantasy.” For these embroideries on the gospel were not pressed down on the faithful by some Pope or bishop but grew as naturally as Christmas trees and mistletoe from the rich and fertile soil of ordinary Latin, English, Polish, African, American, Indian, Filipino and French cultures (to name a few). The Church then is simply celebrating the liberty of individual believers and local communities to honor, with the first fruits of their art, culture and craftsmanship, the beauty of the gospel with everything from local legends to charming dances to fun foods. It was not a cleric, but some anonymous ancient storyteller (probably a grandmama) sitting around a fire on a winter night who (with sweeping gesture and wide eyes) exaggerated the number of the Bethlehem babes to 14,000 to an audience of open-mouthed children. And she did so, with a typically childlike ancient mind, to make a spiritual point: “How wicked was bad King Herod? Why, he killed 14,000! Twice the number of those who did not bow the knee to Baal in the days of Elijah! That is how wicked the devil is! (And how wicked we may be if we do not listen to Jesus. So be good, dear children!) But still the Child Jesus triumphed and took those little babies to heaven with him when he returned there. And he will do the same for all of us who live and die for him as those babes did.” This, though poorly researched history and worse demographics, is great storytelling and good homespun theology. And the Church, ever the friend of the simple and homespun, blesses it.

For, as the Church herself has always staunchly maintained, the believer retains such artistic liberties as long as the Church retains the right to distinguish revelation from legend. In so honoring the imagination, the Church honored our humanity. But she did not thereby make the local legend of 14,000 slain a de fide teaching any more than she demanded we all confess the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar as revealed dogma. That is the essence of the balance she struck.

Yet lest we become enamored of all this artistic frivol as merely quaint and charming, we must also remember that the occasion which Holy Innocents (and most feast days) celebrate is at once very dark and yet lit up with rays of a hope so bright as to be either true or insane. For by honoring such a feast, the Church has chosen to honor the babes (whatever their number) as martyrs for Christ. The feast, following so close on the heels of a Birth, is the commemoration of death–the first of millions of deaths on behalf of that Child, who was himself born for no other purpose than to die for us–and rise again. In sharing in his death, the innocents of Bethlehem are holy because, all unwitting themselves, they were granted the enormous grace of participating in his death for others, and especially for him. They became, by God’s strange grace, the “blessed” who are persecuted for His sake (Matthew 5:11-12).

And lest we forget, this has practical implications for us today since we live in an age which is, tragically, characterized by a slaughter of innocents unimaginable to either Herod or to the ancient yarnspinner who once beguiled her listeners with tales of that royal monster. For our age has rejected the sort of creative freedom celebrated in the feasts and honored by the Church. Instead, our culture of death has chosen the destructive “freedom” which today kills one and a half million American innocents by abortion each year. Yet greater than these crimes, greater than the callousness of a culture that could not only permit it but (in some sectors) strive to force everyone to subsidize it, greater than all this is the grace of God whose love can extend to the most helpless and forgotten innocent and, as with those little ones long ago, bring these defenseless ones to reign with his Son forever in heaven. As God himself has said, so he will do. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15)

Let us celebrate then, this Feast of the Holy Innocents which holds such promise for the seemingly hopeless butchery of so many. For the Christ who calls the little children to him is able to bring life out of all our insanity. It is this redeeming grace which has inspired so many storytellers, so many poets, so many artists and so many songs. Let it inspire us to praise God in imaginative and joyful ways. And let it also move us to stand against the Herods of our day. For in the Day when all stories–true or fable, pious fantasy or sober history–are consummated, the Child for whom these little ones died will say to all who fought to save them “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

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