by Stewart Steven
William of Rubruck–a Franciscan friar–arrived in the city of Karakorum in 1254. Karakorum–on the banks of the Orhon River in Mongolia–was the seat of the fearsome Tartar rulers.
Brother William’s intention was to convert the Tartars to Christianity–but it is hard to imagine any missionary entering territory less propitious.
He wrote in his journals: ‘When we entered among them it seemed to me at once that we had entered a kind of other world.’ The Tartars’ reputation for savagery was well merited. An Armenian monk wrote that they were ‘of hideous aspect without pity in their bowels . . . who rush with joy to carnage as if to a wedding feast’.
So when Brother William received an invitation to meet the supreme Khan of the Tartars–Mongke–the gran’son of Genghis Khan–his sense of dread as to what might follow can only be guessed at.
His first sight of Mongke Khan did nothing to allay his fears. He was dressed in ‘a speckled and shiny fur–like seal’. He was clearly drunk.
But astonishingly Mongke–perhaps the world’s last great pagan ruler–wanted to talk philosophy.
William discovered that–apart from himself–Mongke had invited to his court representatives of Islam as well as a heretical Christian group.
The Khan wanted answers. Was it true–he asked–that the Christians believed their God had taken on the body of Man and had come to Earth and was born in a stable?
It was–said William. So–asked the Khan–how was he–the son and gran’son of great Khans–lord of the mountains and the rivers and sacred guardian of the steppes–expected to follow a religion whose founder was born to a poor carpenter?
‘We do not judge men as to where they are born but as to how they live,’ said William.
Like the noble Khan our kings and our great men are also not born in poverty. Yet they can be good Christians nevertheless.’ But William did not make a conversion–for Mongke had unerringly struck at what is seemingly one of the great paradoxes at the heart of Christianity the gulf that appears to divide the Christmas story and the life led by most Christians.
It was another monk who told me William of Rubruck’s story. The setting could not have been more different from the fabled court of the old Tartar clans of Karakorum.
The year was 1971 and I was spending Christmas with friends in Rio de Janeiro. They introduced me to Brother Antonio–a Capuchin monk working with the poorest of the poor in what are known as the ‘favelas’–the hillside shanty towns which so disfigure the beautiful city.
The Capuchins are an interesting religious order. Every time you order a cappuccino you should bear them in mind. Cappuccino is named after the distinctive light and dark brown habit and white cowl the Capuchins wear.
They were founded in the 16th Century-by a group of Franciscans who felt their order had strayed from its commitment to poverty–simplicity and austerity.
Brother Antonio was telling us about William before we set out for a favela so that he could baptise a newborn child. It had been born on Christmas Day and–inevitably–was to be christened Jesus. That is the way of things in the favelas.
Some say that somewhere around a quarter of the population of Rio live in one of the 700 or so favelas. The houses there are no more than shacks–illegally erected–on the hillsides surrounding the city. There is no running water and there are no sewers.
Criminal gangs control large areas–which the authorities dare not enter. For me it was–to use William’s words–’a kind of other world’.
But under the protection of a Capuchin we were all right. We stepped inside a hovel so that the friar could meet and bless the new baby.
In truth–the only thing not in short supply in a favela is children. Every family seems to have half a dozen or so.
We exchanged a few words–left some small Christmas gifts and were on our way. It was impossible not to have been affected by the scale of the poverty I’d glimpsed. ‘Doesn’t everything we’ve seen today highlight Mongke Khan’s paradox?’ I asked once we were back inside the comfortable saloon car I had hired.
‘Christ was born in the kind of poverty we see here–yet everyone wants to escape it. I do not see the glory of God mirrored in what I witnessed today,’ I added–somewhat truculently.
The Capuchin said: ‘Like Mongke Khan you misunderstand the Christmas story.
Christ was born in a manger–but that doesn’t mean that Christians either glorify poverty or believe that only the poor will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
‘Christians don’t believe that God sent his only son just so that the world could be provided with a role model.
‘The New Testament is not merely a helpful guide to good behaviour.
Jesus was much more than just a charismatic teacher and philosopher. We devout Christians believe this: Jesus is the saviour the only mediator between God and men.
‘Christ was born in a stable rather than a palace so that it would be clear he was here for all men rather than just some men. That is the very essence of Christianity. It is fundamental to everything we believe.
There is no paradox.’ We chatted some more. I told Brother Antonio that though I under- stood what he was saying–those less devout than he might find that maybe his explanation was a bit metaphysical as had proved the case with Mongke Khan.
The monk considered this for a moment. ‘There is a message in the Christmas story for everyone,’ he said.
‘The fact that Christ was born in a stable suggests that Christianity is the religion of infinite possibilities.
‘That was my message to the parents of that baby born in the favela. If you want a paradox you’ll find it there. We have free will. We have boundless opportunities. Yet how few are the people who make proper use of the former–and exercise to the full the latter.
‘That’s what William of Rubruck tried to tell the Khan. He didn’t want to listen.
‘Sadly–almost 750 years later–nothing much has changed. People still don’t want to listen. But just remember this: when you wish someone a happy Christmas–you are wishing them something really important.
You are wishing them a good and fulfilled life. Is there any salutation which can mean more?’ We parted. ‘Happy Christmas,’ he said and for the first time in my life I really understood.