Lord of the Mammals
code word for membership in a particular group. Or perhaps it is simply and heartily a stubborn affirmation of religious faith in a political community, despite the fact that its founders estimated?for their own reasons and experience?that church and state should remain separate realms of public life and discourse.
But whatever the reason, these candidates and their supporters should understand that the historical and religious figure they celebrate reflects not only religion and morality but also the welfare system at its most basic. It is to welfare as the miscalculations in the Garden of Eden are to Original Sin.
It is worth exploring this matter with an anthropological lens. And it is also to be said clearly that what follows is not a comment on the truth or otherwise of the religious dogma and belief that is its subject, or the events involved. It is neither anti- nor pious, but a comment on a remarkable story that has had an astonishing career as a moral lesson and a statement of symbolic affiliation to a force larger than the individual or the family or the tribe.
The story of Christ has generated what is arguably the most popular and gripping holiday in the world, which affects countless people in complex and unexpectedly redolent ways. But when it is boiled down, the essence of the story is an epic picture of bedrock mammalian life. And it reflects acutely one of the underlying principles of the life of mammals, which is that there has to be a system to protect the health and durability of the relationship between the mother and the infant from the vagaries and frailties of the relationship between mother and father, as well as from the ruckus and inequity of social life in general. Other animals handle the matter in a host of ways. We humans have what we call kinship systems, the irreducible task of which is to protect women and young children during the time of their greatest vulnerability and need. Sometimes, the father of the mother is responsible for the child; sometimes the mother; sometimes her brothers; sometimes the biological father; sometimes the legal husband. But whatever the legal or customary deal, the work has to be done.
Back to Nazareth and the simple facts of the matter. Mary is pregnant and then gives birth to a healthy child. She appears to be without resources and to have no envelope of family that will embrace and succor her and her child. Her situation is cheerless and grim. Not only personally but also physically, because this is no spring birth amid flowering bougainvillea and the nearly warm air perfumed by promise. If you've ever been in the Middle East in December, you know how grimly stone-cold and daily dark it is. Christmas is just a few days after the shortest day of the year?a good time for a festival of lights, either Christmas or Chanukah.
Mary applies for shelter at the inn where other people find rest and warmth. But there's no room for her and her new infant. She turns for the roof she needs to a stable, where other animals find shelter and sociability. Other mammals. This is a rich event because it expresses the mental and physical economy and the structure of the "The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want." But she does want. The glory and promise of the central productive spasm of life, this birth, seems not fated to be accorded the reward of peace and quiet and a warm supper that are physically and emotionally necessary. No one appears to be caring for this mother and child. But then the religious miracle of special insight occurs, and it becomes clear to the forces of the universe that this child is the Son of God, and suddenly the wanted and necessary resources begin to make their way to the new family. The Three Wise Men arrive from improbable distances with luxurious gifts that symbolize the best and most gracious resources the community can offer this precious newcomer to its midst.
Not only that. Here the economy and power of religious symbolism explode at their most dramatically revealing. Because Mary is the Virgin, then Joseph her husband is not the father. Therefore he is not a Deadbeat Dad. Therefore he is not responsible for the welfare of the child and the mother.
We are. The community, with its Three and many Wise Men. Suddenly it becomes clear at the highest moral and spiritual level that the miracle of birth must be accompanied by the ordinary but necessary banality of love and care. It emphasizes a sense of the special importance of each newcomer to the human community. It doesn't matter whether or not one believes in the religious element of the story because it is difficult to avoid the profound implications of its social impact in the bedrock mammalian nature of society.
In addition to all its major historical and poetic implications for our particular culture and for our operating mythology, its contemporary impact is also clear. Reflect for a moment on what happens. There is an enormous outburst of civilized activity and carefully orchestrated social events: about 40 percent of all alcohol, which is our major social drug, is sold between Thanksgiving and New Year's. People who work together, perhaps in pitched undeclared battle, must have an Office Party, which somehow reflects an intent that the spirit of the season will affect even the Shark Pool of Career Central. Dozens of millions of greeting cards are exchanged between people who may see each other never or have only the most fleeting connection in May or October?but who in late December become figures in a teeming world of almost-friends and participants in very complicated social and business reciprocity. People who would begrudge buying Sue or Cal or Stefan a dull martini acquire gifts to send and debts to pay because of some potent alchemy of goodwill that, believe it or not, is related to that simple act of birth and the story of human moral grandeur that has been inscribed around it.
And again, it starts with welfare in the tribe and ends with it at home and on the dancefloor and in the charity appeals for coats. Mary was the first Welfare Queen and is worshipped for it, to eternal and internal impact.
What a story! Those earnest political candidates should reflect on what it is they're affirming and to whose biography they attach their own.
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Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
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