It is said that when the designers of the US space shuttles came to considering the dimensions of the solid rocket boosters which were attached to the sides of shuttles, one of the limiting factors was a tunnel along the train line which had to be used to transport the boosters from the place of manufacture to the launch site in Florida. This tunnel is particularly narrow, being only slightly wider than the width between the train tracks themselves, only just accommodating a train. The width between all main gauge train rails in the US is 4 feet, 8½ inches.
The reason the rails in the US are 4 feet 8½ inches apart is that the first trains were mainly built by expatriate English tram builders, who based their measurements on the tramway gauge in England, which also set the tracks at 4 feet 8½ inches apart. This distance had become the standard axle length for the tramways because it was the standard length of the axles on horse-drawn buggies and carriages in England. These carriages were built to such dimensions because the dirt back roads of England were built and used extensively by the Romans, who also used a standard axle length, and so cut deep grooves corresponding to that length into the dirt roads. The effect of these grooves was to force the same axle length on subsequent carts and carriages because, if they did not have the same axle length, the wheels and axles would break against the sides of the grooves left by the earlier Roman chariots. The Roman chariot axle length was determined by a simple and obvious factor – the distance required to fit two horses and their harnesses to the front to pull the thing along.
The point of relating all of this is simply to draw attention to a surprising thing: that the design of the rockets on perhaps the most advanced transportation vehicle the world has ever known was constrained by the distance between the wheels of a Roman chariot, which was approximately equal to twice the width of a horse's … backside.
This is possibly one of those instances where the truth should not be allowed to get in the way of a good story, as a useful lesson is learned: where we are now is something which ineluctably arises out of where we have come from.
When it comes to making sense of the New Testament declarations about Christmas, it is important to recognize that each gospel writer speaks of his own particular "now" – his own present experience of Jesus – in terms of a particular starting place. A quick look at the start of each of four gospels reveals that they begin in very different places.
Mark begins at the first public appearance of the mature Jesus; the Christmas story as we know it is irrelevant to what Mark wants to say about where what has happened began. Matthew has parts of our familiar Christmas story, as does Luke, but these two begin not there but with genealogies of Jesus. In the case of Matthew, the story begins with the Jewish patriarch Abraham, probably reflecting his particular interest in portraying Jesus as standing firmly in series with previous experiences of Israel. In the case of Luke the story begins with Adam, whom he understood to be the progenitor of all peoples. This probably reflects Luke's interest in portraying Jesus not simply as of and for the Jews but as one with a humanity in common with all, and so potentially embracing of Jew and Gentile alike.
John, the last in the sequence of gospel writers, pushes the beginning back even further. For him it all starts not merely with Adam and Eve, but "in the beginning". Jesus is not simply a man who appears in time but, as John's gospel begins, "He was in the beginning with God...", the very "Word" by which all has come into being.
The gospel writers are, in a sense, coming to terms with those 4 feet and 8½ inches they had about themselves in their encounter with God in Jesus: what must once have been the case for us to see or know ourselves in Jesus as we now do? What is the beginning which makes sense of this present?
We today stand in a different place from the gospel writers. Whereas they reflected on what they experienced of Jesus and came to their various conclusions about where it must have begun, we tend to approach Christmas by recalling their experiences of Jesus and not expecting or desiring or looking for our own. And so Christmas generally involves taking delivery of 4 feet, 8½ inches ofGod and ourselves, and being invited to structure our belief around that limitation as if, having once been set in place by those who have gone before us, the things of God-and-us will always be as they once were.
Usually, with such matters, it is easier to put up with the inconvenience than it is to do the extraordinary amount of work it would take toreconceivethe design. An antipodean Christmas filled with songs about reindeer and sleighs, and snowy scenes on greeting cards, is evidence enough of this. Even if it is all a bit hard to swallow, we can still hold our nose and gulp down really hard. Such a reception of Christmas is, at best, as something merely remembered and, at worst, as something alien to be endured.
But if Christmas is what the New Testament gospellers thought it to be, then it does not simply live in the past; rather, there is a future which lives in Christmas. The gospel writers delved back into Jesus' origins in order to understand the source not only of their present but also of an unexpectedly renewed future. To stay with the gospeller John: to identify the human being Jesus with the originating Word, the founding thought of all things, is to say something not only about God but about the possibilities of our world. If this Word can become flesh – our tangled, oddly-dimensioned humanity – and still be a divine reality then anything is possible. Or, more to the point, truly new things are possible – then, and now, and tomorrow.
The truly new is a very rare thing. Whether we act to affect them or not, we all have futures before us. The question which matters is whether that future will be something truly new and enlivening, or simply more of the same: it looks like a space shuttle, but if you look closely enough it is really just a variation on a theme by two Roman horses. It looks like a better policy, a new hope, a true revolution, a miracle cure…but it is really what we already had, re-worked, polished up, or re-heated.
Our world is irredeemably a strange 4 feet 8½ inches; it is too hard to round ourselves up to something more sensible. Yet it is the message of Christmas that, however oddly we may measure up, God has that measure. John's proposal is that one has "come into the world" from beyond and found a home as one of us. This is a thought which is different, and worthy of reflection. It proposes that, most unexpectedly, God can make good of us, even with all our fleshly ups and downs, our odd, deformed and corrupted dimensions. Here is a possibility of truly new beginnings, the start of a new world created for us and in us, a new source of life which becomes light for us and for all: the promise that even this broken world will be made whole again.