I have known John Davies for 60 years. Back in 1959 he was a parish priest of a somewhat distant, largely rural parish in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, and he came a couple of times to speak to students at Wits Univeresity. On one of those occasions he spoke about Christian art, but I have forgotten the other. A couple of years later he spoke to students from all over South Africa on the topic of Religion versus God, and I remember quite a lot of what he said then, as it had an enormous influence on my theological understanding. It was reinforced seven years later by reading For the life of the world by Father Alexander Schmemann.
That makes it a bit difficult to review a book he has written, since his thinking has influenced my own thinking to such an extent that it is difficult to be objective and critical. So let the reader beware.
This book, as the title suggests, is about Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of the Incarnation. What do we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is both God and Man, both divine and human? The book is intended to be used by parish study groups, and so is divided into chapters with a scripture passage relating to the birth of Christ, intended to be read aloud by several voices,. a brief meditation on the passage, and suggestions for discussion and activities at the end.
But at the beginning there is an introduction, where John Davies describes his first Christmas as a parish priest, which shaped the understanding that lies behind the book, and is perhaps the most useful part to concentrate on in a review.
The parish was in what is now Mpumalanga, and in it there was a gold mine, and the Christmas service was in the hostel for black miners. They normally held the service in a classroom, but it was locked up with many people being away for Christmas, so they had it in the miners’ common room, which was also occupied by some of the fowls the miners kept. Davies writes:
My most abiding memory of that Christmas is of a candle-lit congregation singing the praises of the coming of Christ in half-a-dozen different languages, accompanied by the intermittent complaints of poultry whose sleep-pattern had been so strangely disturbed,
He notes some of the things that struck him about that service, which helped to shape his understanding of the scriptural texts (I can only give a much abbreviated version here).
- It happened in a borrowed room, an annexe to a public meeting place.
- It was a hidden event, not publicized much in advance.
- It happened in the dark. Few people saw or understood what was happening; most were asleep.
- It happened in the company of farmyard creatures, humanity’s close companions.
- It happened among people who were poor and voteless non-citizens. They were not “simple” or “ordinary” people; most of them were people of valuable skill and courage in the gold-mining industry, but they were people of no status within the systems controlled by the political and economic dominances of the day.
- It was an occasion which affirmed the value of material things; bread and alcoholic drink could both be sources of argument and fighting and killing; but here they were being claimed as ways for God to be present among people.
There are many other parallels that Davies notes. He notes that they are all history, but they are slanted history. They are selective, and were written down forty years after the event, just as the gospel stories of the Nartivity were themselves written down about 40 years after the events themselves. The details he notes are not recorded anywhere else.
There will be no reference to that Christmas gathering in the archives of the mine administration, or in those of the Magisterial District of Bethal in the Transvaal. There are all sorts of assumptions in what I have written… I have recorded the event because of its meaning to me. I cannot be sure that my understanding of the regulations concerning the use of mine property is correct, or that I have remembered accurately the conditions on which non-mine-employees were allowed on the site. I cannot even be sure what sorts of bread and wine were used or what the sermon was about. But my purpose is not to give a specimen of the social history of the mine, but to give an account of what I believe to have been an example of God’s presence in the world. On that basis, and only on that basis, judge my story. Similarly, we do not go to Luke to get details of the Roman taxation system, or to Matthew to get astronomical information. We go to find something concerning the meaning and manner of God’s presence in the world.
And that is what this book is about.