No longer settling for stories

In our house, on Christmas Eve we leave cookies and a note for Santa, and Santa has always written back.  The notes vary, but have always carried similar, strong themes.  But much to Andy’s and my surprise, it’s largely gone unnoticed, until this year, when age, maturity, and a reluctantly rethought story have shined a different light on the notes’ consistent contents over the years. 
This year, Santa’s response read, “Dear Maisy, Thank you for the cookies.  First, Sorry is in order. A reindeer deer pooped by the tree. I had Khaleesi clean it. What a nice dog. So sweet, and talking about sweet, what a dad!  One of a kind!  I love that guy.  He really helped me with some Mrs. Claus issues! Wise. So glad to call him a friend. All the best!  Santa”

Nobody likes to have their stories taken away.  We hang onto our stories for all sorts of reasons.  Even if they don’t make sense or don’t correspond to our experience of the world, we often keep telling the same stories. They could be magical ones that make the world feel brighter.  They could be hurtful ones, like “I’m not good enough” or “Those people are the enemy.” Or they might be helpful stories that tell us who we are and help us frame the world, like “This is who I am.”  
Stories provide perimeters, but even the positive ones can keep us stuck, can keep us from being curious or courageous.  Sometimes, looking at our really familiar and well-worn stories, and considering that there may be something more, or even just different, can open us up to God’s Spirit in unexpected ways.

The Christmas story is this way.  We’ve extrapolated all kinds of details over time that are not there but have been injected back in as essential, and while it makes for a good pageant, much of it is likely not true. So let’s take today, the day of Epiphany, insight, Aha!, the day we celebrate with the Magi God’s self-revelation to the whole world, for the whole world.  Epiphany is a good day to open ourselves to God’s self-revelation anew, by looking again at the old stories.

First of all, we’ve spun a whole wide and detailed narrative set in some kind of New England barn scene, where Mary and Joseph have their baby alone in piles of hay, surrounded by animals, just minutes after they stumble into town, Mary gasping with contractions atop a donkey, and Joseph frantically pounding on doors, being rejected by the whole city, and finally being pointed to a stable out back by an either grumpy or apologetic innkeeper.

More likely they’d been in Bethlehem for some time, weeks maybe. And the whole scene I just described is just what imaginations gone before have made of these two sentences, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn."

What we Western, modern folks don’t know about that time and place could fill a stable,  unlike people in that region and time, who didn’t use stables, but instead housed their animals at night inside the family home, not in a separate outbuilding away from the house.  Imagine a simple home, sometimes with a bedroom, and a larger general living room. It often had a guest room attached to the end, or on the roof.  
The main room was a split-level, with a small lower area where, at night, the animals were brought in from the outdoors to sleep in the dwelling with the family.  The first job in the morning was to bring them back out.  The larger room, where the family cooked and ate their meals and generally lived their lives had carved into the floor of the higher level right near the lower level, an indentation, a built-in manger, so that the animals could reach their head up from the lower level and eat from it.  
Finally, the Greek word translated here as “inn” is not the word Luke uses for a commercial hotel in the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s actually the word he uses for “ guest room” when the disciples come seeking a spare room for the last supper. 

Mary and Joseph are returning to the land of Joseph’s people – in a culture of deep, pervasive hospitality. They were not visiting somewhere they’ve never been and stopping at a crowded Super8 along the freeway. Most likely they were staying in the simple peasant home of relatives, or even friends of friends– this would have been common. When the time came for Jesus to be born, there was no room for them in the guest room, so they delivered in the living room, and placed the baby in the manger in the floor next to them.  

And now, we can use our imaginations to explore the story some more.
Remember silent Zechariah and pregnant Mary and Elizabeth?  This first community of the promise –whose lives had been invaded by transcendence, now sharing together the secret of the universe’s redemption, along with the mundane and challenging ins and outs of pregnancy?  Mary stayed with Elizabeth until John was born, probably assisting with the birth and celebrating with them, before setting out for home, 3-4 months pregnant by that time. Remember, it’s a several day, nearly 100-mile journey. 
A few months later, when Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem, they followed the same path Mary took, and arrived at their destination, about four miles past Elizabeth and Zechariah’s town.  While they were there, Mary’s time to deliver arrived.  Elizabeth was probably there with Mary for the birth of Jesus. How could she miss it?  God had given them to each other to share this experience; why wouldn’t Elizabeth come and help?  Maybe there was no room for them in the guest room because little Baby John and Zechariah were sleeping there!  Who knows? But the not knowing opens up the chance to consider how else God might have been at work.  

Because I think of Joseph - now in on this story too, it’s become his destiny, his purpose. The angel came to him in a dream and he is now becoming Father of the Messiah.  But he didn’t have a community, like Mary did, to share this.  What if he is given Zechariah?  What if, after his own angel encounter, and the nine months on the sidelines while the Holy Spirit worked in these two women’s wombs and he adjusted to being part of the story of God’s inbreaking, in all that silence, Zechariah now gets to share the words of hard-won wisdom with Joseph?

After Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph settle in Bethlehem for a while. Joseph works as a carpenter and they figure out how to be a family and how to be parents, and what to do with all they know of God’s plan, which isn’t much at this point but that heaven has invaded earth and God has entered in, holding this reality alongside the reality of diapers and spit up and teething and the ordinary business of raising a baby.  
And surely these days they must have gazed at his tiny features, bleary with new parent fatigue, searching for signs of divinity in his perfectly human baby face.  And probably Mary still pondered all these things in her heart on a regular basis. I like to think they stayed friends with the shepherds and regularly shared potlucks or campfire sing-alongs. Maybe a couple of them especially took a liking to the child, and Uncle Omar and Uncle Seth carved toy sheep for the toddler Jesus.

Meanwhile, the moment Jesus is born, a strange star, or light, rises in the sky and astrologers from a far-off land – with completely different customs, religion, beliefs, practices, outside the perimeters of this story so far -  set out to discover the King they believe has come.  And God is getting ready to shake the stories again - Herod’s story of his own power and invincibility, and likely Mary and Joseph’s story of a Jewish Messiah, come to overthrow the oppressors and set Israel free.  
God is coming for a different reason, for a purpose beyond the stories they’ve told for generations.  God is coming for the whole world.

The Magi who come bring three gifts, but there were not likely just three of them.  It could’ve been a whole contingent; all we know from the language is that there was more than one.  It takes these travelers many months, likely up to two years, to reach the Holy Family. Jesus is quite certainly no longer in the manger, and probably not even still in diapers.

They come into town and meet with King Herod, getting their own jolt that the King they seek is not the king of this land, nor was he born in the palace to royalty of any kind.  Instead, when they finally find him, he is in a peasant’s home, with his mother. Perhaps he is just finishing lunch, or helping with the chickens, or playing with his carved sheep while she hangs the wash. 
I love imagining the Magi’s arrival and how things might have gone from there. How did they communicate back and forth? What languages or gestures did they use? How did the stories come out? Was there a big “reunion of those who are in on what God is up to” party with the shepherds and Elizabeth and Zechariah and little John?  After that long, undoubtedly grueling journey, how long did they stay? Weeks? Months? Just a few days?  Just a few hours?  Did they all crowd into Mary & Joseph’s guest room? Or was there no room, so they pitched tents nearby, or spread out into neighbor’s guest rooms? Did their arrival do anything to Mary’s pondering?  What was it like for Joseph’s faith and sense of the future to welcome these seekers from so far away?

And then a dream warns the visitors to go home by another road.  And then an angel tells Joseph to take the child and his mother and flee as refugees to Egypt, while the mad King Herod seeks to squash the potential threat to his throne.  And the one person in the story with a ton of power rages and kills and destroys and tries to cement his hold, and is dead from some really awful and painful illness less than two years later.  And the little family comes back from Egypt and returns, finally, to Nazareth.

Here is what all this is to say – we don’t really know how it happened.   We tell the story the way we’ve heard it, shaped by others’ stories, like, “mangers are in stables,” or “Messiahs belong to the Israelites,” but the realty was real– it was real people’s lives with real fear and real courage and real boredom and real confusion and real pain.  

God came into the real. God was born as an ordinary peasant child into a Middle Eastern, 1stcentury village life.  These specific people- first some shepherds, and then some mystical foreigners from far away - got to meet him in the flesh – to hold him and hear him cry and see him drift off to sleep or wake up looking for his mommy.  They got to see him in with his dad, learning how to be human, with the walking and the talking, like every other one of us before and after him.  
God did this.  God came into this real world.  And God came for the whole world, beyond all our distinctions of nation and language and religion and difference and no powers that be could stop him.  God came for the entire universe, and even the heavenly bodies got in on it – broadcasting the message to any who would notice and follow that star.  
Beyond the material world, there is a reality of transcendence that we can’t begin to even contemplate.  And from outside our time and space and stories, God has come as far in as it is possible to enter, right into the thick of it alongside us, as vulnerable as we come.  This is real.  God is always coming in to the real.  And God is always beckoning us to lift our heads and let the light in, to open our hearts and receive the mystery.

But sometimes we get trapped in our stories. Our crowded stables and selfish innkeepers block the view of a star that shines where it shouldn’t be, brighter than it should be, calling us into the unknown to trust and seek and follow the God from outside who comes in.

Christmas has become a fairy tale.  But it really happened. And not necessarily like we think or have been told. God has become a fairy tale.  But God is really here.  And not necessarily like we think or have been told.

We’re in our year-long journey with grace, the abundance of God’s Yes to us. 
Here we begin "Grace in Presence."
Grace in the presence of God, both mysterious and unknowable, and also coming near, as ordinary as you and me.  
Grace in the presence of strangers, unexpectedly affirming the bigger picture, inviting us to reconsider our stories and open our hearts wider. 
Grace in the presence of those who are in on what God is up to, trusting alongside one another, feeling their way through together, and helping each other adjust to being part of the story of God’s in-breaking.  
God meets us with grace when we refuse to settle for stories and instead seek to be present to the real experience, in all its clarity and muddiness, all it’s ambivalence and fear, all its joy and sorrow.  That’s where God is.  Because that’s who God is now: Emmanual, God With Us.

(For more historical detail, see "The Manger and the Inn: A Middle Eastern View of the Birth Story, by Ken Bailey)

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