The Nativity as Divine Comedy (Luke 1:51-52, RSV)

by Conrad Hyers

Dr. Hyers is professor of comparative mythology and the history of religions at Gustavux Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 11, 1974, pp. 1168-1172. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The biblical themes of scattering the proud, putting down the mighty, and elevating the lowly are an important part of the symbolism of comedy and the repertoire of clowns and fools. The uplifting of the lowly is particularly evident in the story of the nativity.

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree. [Luke 1:51-52, RSV]

There is something peculiarly biblical in these words from the Magnificat of Mary. And though the immediate Christian inclination has been to interpret them in terms of a drama of sin and salvation, their peculiarity is more fully appreciated in terms of the genre of comedy. There is -- as the imagery itself might indicate -- a remarkable affinity between the biblical tradition and the comic tradition which has too often been neglected because of misgivings over drawing upon such associations. Still, the themes of ‘scattering the proud" and ‘putting down" the mighty, while elevating the lowly in their stead, are an important part of the symbolism of comedy, and of the ancient repertoire of clowns and fools.

To be sure, the powerful sweep of these words at first suggests the grand images of conquest that belong to the mythology of the noble hero. But considering that they are attributed to an unknown peasant girl in an inconsequential village of Roman-occupied Israel, there is at the same time a certain "sweet madness" about them that belongs to the comic and the nonheroic. The juxtaposition of utterance and utterer -- and the disparity between the two -- is so radical, so incredible, as to suggest the same response that Abraham gave to the news that his aged wife Sarah was to bear him a son, and hence give birth to Israel: Isaac, that is, "laughter."

Theologians and biblical scholars have customarily approached such passages under the rubrics of "Salvation History," "Drama of Redemption," and the like. And by and large this Heilsgeschichte has been dealt with in much the same grave and ponderous style as the term itself. That sense of marvelous absurdity and incredulous, wide-eyed wonder that attaches itself to great surprises, sudden amazements and comic twists, seems to get lost in the prosaic thickness of theological pedantry. And the resultant "salvation" lacks some of the very gaiety and delight represented by the birth of an infant. It is as if the prophecy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis instead had come true: that in the last age children would be born as old men with gray hair and wrinkled faces!

Furthermore, as we know too well from experience, this business of "scattering the proud" and "putting down the mighty" can become rather vengeful and vicious without the mellowing of the comic perspective. The proud are replaced by the proud, and vanquished inhumanities beget new inhumanities. But the prerequisites for entering this kingdom and its salvation are, in fact, the very opposite of those qualities seen in the triumphal entry of conquering heroes: childlikeness, meekness, humility, tenderness and compassion.

Out of Nazareth?

Something of the significance of these comic and nonheroic elements becomes clearer if one contrasts Christian and Buddhist nativity stories. For the Buddhist nativity is classically dramatic, heroic, and richly embroidered with myth. In the Buddhacarita the Buddha is depicted as being born to the "unconquerable" Shakya clan, of a beautiful queen "like the goddess Shachi," and to a life of princely luxury and advantage. Having performed the marvelous deeds of 500 previous incarnations, he had now come to his final and most glorious birth, and had entered the womb of the graceful Maya in the form of a white elephant. As the queen’s time drew near, she had retired to a pleasure-grove, attended by a retinue of thousands of maids-in-waiting. The garden was laden with a paradisal profusion of flowers, fruits and nuts. And while the queen stood beneath the branches of the greatest of the Sal trees in the grove, she gave birth, without pain or discomfort, to a radiant son whose skin shone like lustrous gold. The child was delivered into a golden net carried by angels, his birth surrounded by many signs and wonders. The infant Buddha thereupon arose, looked in each of the four directions, and declared: "I am born to gain enlightenment for the benefit of all the world. This is my final birth."

The form and pageantry of the Christian nativity is strikingly different. Rather than aristocratic images of noble birth, we are presented with a laborer’s wife, from a poor village, the status of which -- even among Jews -- is suggested by the phrase, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" The birth takes place unattended, in a donkey shed, behind a crowded inn in which there is no room. The only witnesses are the animals in whose feeding trough the infant is laid, and a small band of simple sheepherders from the nearby hills. There is no cosmic tree or golden net or paradisal abundance, but a bed of straw, swaddling cloth and the smell of ordure. Though later wise men from the East come to Herod’s palace to pay homage to the newborn "king," they find him in the only place consistent with the rest of the biblical tradition: among the lowest of the low. And the result of their visit is that Mary and Joseph are forced to flee with the child Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s threatened slaughter of young male children.

Though there are certain similarities between these two nativities, the Buddhist account is essentially heroic and hierarchical; the Christian is non-heroic and nonhierarchical. The one is grandly dramatic, the other quaintly comic. By comparison the Gospel accounts are surprisingly down-to-earth, realistic and, one is inclined to say, proletarian.

This is not to argue the superiority of the Christian nativity. Nor is it to suggest that the Buddhist tradition contains no comparable elements. For the Buddha comes to renounce his royal station for the life of a casteless, begging monk. And the later Zen sect in particular introduces a startling variety of nonhierarchical and blatantly comic elements into Buddhism. There are nevertheless important differences that give the Christian nativity a more immediate affinity with the spirit and structure of comedy. In order for Zen to get to the same point, it must radically debunk the heroic heights of its own nativity story, as in Master Yun-men’s remark after recounting the birth of the Buddha to his monks: "If I had seen him at the time, I would have cut him down with my staff, and given his flesh to dogs to eat, so that peace could prevail over all the world!"

Though both Matthew and Luke make a special effort to demonstrate Jesus’ Messianic legitimacy by placing him in the royal line of David, no effort at all is made to "dress up" the obscurity and lowly estate of his birth. If anything, these elements are emphasized as part of the inner plot and meaning of his nativity. They are the "point of the joke," so to speak, the form of the divine folly. Jesus was both "low-caste" and a Nazarene. And, indeed, the circumstances of his birth, and the later Christian interpretation of his life and death, suggest an outcaste. Jesus is the re-enactment of the "root out of dry ground" of Isaiah 53 who has "no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" -- who is "despised and rejected by men."

Anyone who has sat tearfully and joyfully through Charlie Chaplin’s comic film masterpiece, City Lights, will immediately sense the profound relationship between these biblical themes and those of the tradition of comedy and clowning. Chaplin plays the tramp, the outcaste of society, the vagabond with "nowhere to lay his head." who becomes the strange vehicle of salvation for a poor blind girl, and for a rich man bent on drowning himself. The reward for his "heroism" is that he is befriended by the rich man (when the latter is drunk) and thrice rejected by him (when the man is sober). Finally the little tramp is accused of the theft of money which the rich man in his drunken generosity had given him. Fleeing the police, he manages to get the money to the blind girl for an operation to restore her sight, but is then apprehended and imprisoned.

After serving his sentence he emerges from prison, shabbier and lonelier than ever. And the girl, who all along had imagined the little tramp to be a handsome young man of means, does not even recognize him. As he happens to trudge forlornly by the window of her new floral shop, he is ridiculed by the very one whose sight the "stolen" money had restored, and for whom he had gone to prison. Only in the final scene does she discover that this pitiful, disheveled tramp was her benefactor, when she touches his arm and face once again, as in her blindness, and in that moment of revelation whispers, "You!"

Human Wisdom and Divine Foolishness

It is something of a truism that Western civilization has long been preoccupied with power, greatness and national prestige. Our culture heroes are those who have battled to the top of the competitive pile, and our controlling values have wheeled "onward and upward" on the wings of an ideology of progress and limitless expansion. We have identified ourselves so completely with majestic eagles soaring off into the sun and the "wild blue yonder" that it has not been easy to admit a finiteness -- relative to the infinities that surround us -- in which we are really more like chickadees, or dull gray sparrows.

Yet this obsession with greatness and number-one-ness, whether of individuals, nations or civilizations, has always stood in a rather awkward relationship to the biblical tradition -- however much Christendom has failed to sense the awkwardness. Measured by worldly criteria of importance and success, the entire Bible is a patchwork collection of anecdotes, genealogies and histories of a motley people who were the "nobodies" of the ancient world. So much is this so that the Apostle Paul, using words of the same order as the Magnificat, can exclaim: "Has not God made, foolish the wisdom of this world?"

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. [I Cor. 1:26-29, RSV]

Here, in fact, is the basic theme of this "salvation comedy." For who, after all, are the people that march in the biblical parade? Certainly not -- except on the periphery -- those who were the center of attention in the ancient world. Not the kings and noblemen of Babylon and Persia, nor the Pharaohs and architects of Egypt, nor the poets and philosophers of Greece, nor the emperors and generals and engineers of Rome. It is a parade of children, shepherds, gypsies, slaves and refugees; a parade of the maimed, the blind and the halt; a parade of nobodies and the prophets of nobodies. The "chosen" of God are clearly not chosen on the basis of having the most to offer, but rather on the basis of having nothing to offer but themselves. And the "reward" of this chosenness is often that of being the clown, the scapegoat, the butt of the joke, the "fool for Christ’s sake."

While there are biblical heroes, they are a curious lot indeed; the terms "nonhero" and "comic hero" are really more appropriate. We meet Abraham, an obscure Mesopotamian peasant who migrated to the territory that was to become, the doormat of surrounding superpowers. We meet Moses, rescued son of slaves, leading a nation of slaves out of Egypt. We meet Saul, chosen king "from the least of the tribes of Israel" and from "the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin" (I Sam. 9, RSV), and who responded to his election by hiding among the baggage. We meet David, a mere shepherd boy who brings down the mighty Goliath with a single pebble, and who later rules over a petty kingdom the size of Yellowstone National Park. Even Solomon "in all his glory" was hardly arrayed like the great kings and Pharaohs of the day; and that glory became his downfall, and the downfall of Israel.

The portraits in the Gospels are little different, Jesus is heralded by the strange figure of John the Baptizer, crying in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s skin and eating locusts and wild honey. Jesus’ own disciples were hardly selected from the Who’s Who of the Roman Empire, or even the Palestinian social register. And Jesus as "Son of David," "Prince of Peace," and "Lord of Lords" is an odd instance of royalty indeed, from his birth to a carpenter’s wife in an animal shelter, to his vagabond ministry among peasants, publicans and sinners, to his "triumphal entry" upon a burro, to his death as a mock king with thorns for a crown and a cross for a throne. What divine foolishness is this?

The World Turned Upside Down

When Friedrich Nietzsche, in his several tirades against Christianity, points to these elements as of the essence of the biblical tradition, he is certainly correct -- though not in the dark conclusions he draws from the observation,

The Christian conception of God -- God as God of the sick, God as spider, God as spirit -- is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth; perhaps it even represents the low-water mark in the descending development of the God type. God degenerated to the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! [Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, translated by R. J. Holingdale, Penguin Books]

But Nietzsche has missed the fundamental comedy in the structure of all biblical scenarios. This comic structure is precisely that of a radical descent to the low-water mark; the embrace of even the sick, the weak and the useless; the sudden revaluation of the "meanest creature and flower." Far from a "contradiction of life," this is an encompassing of the whole of life, a "transfiguration" of all limiting and restricting calculations of worth and importance, an eternal Yes to all peoples and places. Nietzsche, like some of his latter-day disciples, has simply failed to get the point of the joke!

It may well be that the church has also missed the point, and in that failure has opened itself up to the many distortions and evils to which Nietzsche and others have addressed themselves. But to suggest that biblical faith fosters a religion of sickness, weakness, mediocrity, cowardice and slavery, or that it debases life and individual worth, is like saying that the clown is a corrupter of morals, the jester an anarchist, and the fool a destroyer of reason! The subtle ambiguities and transformations of the biblical comedy are lost.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar."

[Wallace Stevens, "The Man with the Blue Guitar"]

In the world of the Bible everything is turned upside down. The whole hierarchy of human values and the ladders of human greatness and self-importance are inverted or collapsed. All normal expectations, and the clever stratagems of the prudent, are baffled. Servants appear in the stead of their masters; riffraff are admitted to the royal banquet table; the nobodies stand up and are counted; peasants are crowned king for a day; and the meek inherit the earth. It is a world in which beggars are more at home than the wealthy, sinners more than the righteous, children more than their parents, and clowns and fools more than priests and scribes.

This is not, however, a simple exchange of top for bottom, of reason for irrationality, of knowledge for ignorance. Rather, everything becomes topsy-turvy so that everything may be righted. Reason is mocked so that what reason misses or suppresses may be included. All human orders are challenged, for no order is complete and final. The clown takes the place of the lowest of the low, and the fool mistakes dried peas for pearls, so that the integrity and worth of every person, thing and moment -- however lowly -- may be defended and become the object of special wonder and delight.

Biblical Commonplaceness

When Dante entitled his 14th century classic Commedia -- not "divine" comedy; the divine part was added by later divines -- he meant that it was written in the vernacular ("lax and humble" rather than lofty and stately language) and that it moved from "misery to felicity" (from hell to paradise). Biblical materials certainly form a commedia in both senses. But perhaps the most peculiar characteristic of nearly all biblical narratives is their "vernacular" nature. They belong to the common people; and they share, without awkwardness or embarrassment, in the commonplaces of everyday life. The amount of lofty spiritual instruction and edifying discourse is proportionately quite sparse. The reader is deluged with tedious genealogies, military roll calls, "nuts and bolts" inventories of tabernacles and temples, meticulous ceremonial codes, lists of petty kings, and an array of trifling events and curious tales. Unlike the more "spiritual" and heroic religious literatures of the world, the Bible gives attention to a host of ordinary people, doing rather ordinary things.

So much is this so that a modern reader, accustomed to focusing only upon the most noteworthy individuals and events, is likely to become irritated at the burdensome mass of seemingly trivial detail and the myriad of insignificant names and stories. It may well seem to anyone of discriminating taste, and with a sense of what is and is not of historical value, that the Bible is a poorly edited conglomeration of important and unimportant materials which could have been reduced to more sensible proportions by eliminating all these inconsequential people and incidents and concentrating on exceptional people and crucial events. Then, instead of reading like the "Around Home" section or the obituary column of a small-town newspaper, it could have provided a more worthy document of the life and times of the ancient world, a register of the designs and deeds of the truly great men and nations of the ancient Near East.

The fact that the biblical writers and editors do not do this, however, does not necessarily suggest an inability to distinguish between the significant and the trivial. Rather, a divine parenthesis, as it were, has been placed around all human classifications and gradations, giving all distinctions between great and small a comic pathos.

The Comic Parenthesis

This is the consistent double-theme that runs through the Bible: in relation to God all human greatness is as nothing; and yet because of this nothingness before God, even the lowliest is of immeasurable value. What is taken away with one hand is given back with the other -- fully, graciously and to all. In the words of Samuel Miller’s description of the double-miracle wrought by the clown: "It is a world of such magic and mystery that everybody becomes nobody, and the nobodies everybody."

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,

and are accounted as the dust on the scales . . .

All the nations are as nothing before him,

they are accounted by him as less than nothing and

emptiness . . .

Who brings princes to nought,

and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing . . .

He gives power to the faint,

and to him who has no might he increases strength.

[Isa. 40: 15-29, RSV]

Such is the nature of that divine foolishness which destroys the wisdom of the wise and brings to nothing the understanding of the prudent; the divine weakness in which the mighty are put down from their thrones and those of low degree are exalted; the divine comedy in which the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty.

Some comic theorists have argued that comedy and clowning have no transforming possibilities, but rather are a conservative force, reinforcing the status quo in the act of providing temporary relief from it. Yet it is this divine comedy that has been the continuing source and inspiration of much of our concern for equality, freedom and justice for all, our compassion for the disinherited, our defense of the weak and the poor. For all of our social pyramids, our collective wisdoms, and our discriminations according to rank and power are set by this divine foolishness within the brackets of the comic perspective. Our hierarchies are taken with only a limited and provisional seriousness, not an ultimate and absolute seriousness. They stand within that infinite, transcendent context which radically qualifies everything, and in which all human distinctions are finally annulled. In Isaiah’s imagery, "It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers." The differences among grasshoppers presumably are only of tentative importance in the small world of grasshoppers.

In this divine comedy a poor woman’s farthing cast inconspicuously in the temple chest may be worth more than all the benefactions of the rich. Sinners, unworthy to set foot in holy places, may be justified over those faithful and comfortable in their righteousness. Children may be closer to the kingdom of God than the learned and pious. Illiterates and fools may see what scribes and philosophers do not. And the most godforsaken places may be precisely where God is to be found: Emmanuel, God with us.

. . . We have seen

The moon in lonely alleys make

A grail of laughter of an empty ash-can

And through all sounds of gaiety and quest

Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

[Hart Crane, "Chaplinesque"]