Tag Archives: Zechariah

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

I Will Bring You Home

imagesCACMK60OBaptist preacher’s kids get to do some very odd things. I memorized large portions of the Bible under duress, including–as a dutiful five-year-old–the names of the books of the Old Testament minor prophets to an obnoxious sing-songy tune. I could run through all of them in one breath—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. These obscure texts were written in a distant time for a distant people in contexts and for reasons known only to the most narrowlnot-alone[1]y focused academics.  Yet there are memorable promises buried in these forgotten pages; in a recent Sunday lectionary reading, I was reminded of Zephaniah’s : I will bring you home.

Vermont, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Florida, Wyoming, New Mexico again, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Rhode Island. These are the states in which I have lived, in chronological order. A few footnotes: I lived in Rhode Island the first time for only one month, triumphantly returning sixteen years later for a period of time that has now lasted for more than two decades. I’ve now lived in Rhode Island for a longer unbroken number of years than any other state, including Vermont, the state in which I grew up.Thumbs-up-icon[1] Some of these states I’ve loved living in Thumbs-down-icon[1](New Mexico, Wisconsin, Rhode Island), some I’ve hated (Florida, Tennessee)—these judgments are comments about me rather than about the states, all of which I’m sure are lovely and eminently livable.

A friend of mine who knows Jeanne and I well said in an email to me a few years ago that “you and Jeanne are home for each other.” And it’s a good thing. When her mother died in late 2002, the last of our four parents to pass away, Jeanne said to me “now we’re orphans.” Indeed we were officially orphans, but we had felt as if we were orphans for most of the almost fifteen years at that time that we had been together. When Jeanne and I, along with my two sons (ages 8 and 5), set up housekeeping together for the firStress-ZebraStripes-240x300[1]st time in Milwaukee in August 1988, my parents were living over 1000 miles to the west in Wyoming and Jeanne’s parents were more than 1000 miles to the east in Brooklyn. These distances deprived our new step-family of badly needed support and wisdom, a situation made even worse when my mother died of cancer within two months of our arrival in Wisconsin, followed unexpectedly by my father-in-law’s passing just two weeks later. Jeanne read an article once listing a number of the top stress creators that a human being might go through in their lifetime, including changing jobs, moving, divorce, marriage, and the death of loved ones. We experienced all of them within the first tumultuous months of our relationship.

Although it would be another fourteen years before my father and mother-in-law died within a few months of each other in 2002, Dad of heart failure and Rose after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s, the distances between the two of us and our remaining parents never decreased. I learned immediately after my mother died the truth of what I had suspected all along—she was the one connecting thread that bound me tightly to my father, my brother, and other members of my extended family. Although Jeanne’s mother and four siblings remained and would have helped if they could have, they were still over 1000 miles away. For the day to day struggles of making our new family work, we were alone, often making it up as we went along.

Which often seems to be the human condition—making it up as we go along. As I read Psalm 22 at midday prayer several years ago with a few dozen Benedictine monks and visitors, the poignancy ripped into me. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry from the cross is perhaps the most convincing evidence in the gospels, in case I needed any, that Jesus was fully human, a man just as I am. This anguish-filled cry expresses a primal human fear—aloneness and abandonment. Jesus knew it was coming, as one by one his closest friends left him first in spirit (“Could you not pray with me even one hour?”) and then in body. Jesus’ cry in Gethsemane—“Let this cup pass from me”—was not about avoiding the pain and suffering to come. It came from the depths of Jesus’ humanity, a gut-wrenching terror of being hung out to dry with no one and nothing left to fall back on, of dying alone and abandoned. And on the cross the fear became a reality. Ellul.MoneyAndPower.83000Every human being’s worst nightmare come true. Alone. Abandoned. Lost.

My father’s favorite theologian, Jacques Ellul, once wrote a book entitled Hope in Time of Abandonment. Which is what Advent is all about. The heart of this hope is expressed in a line from one of my favorite hymns—“Alleluia! Not as orphans are we left in sorrow now.”0351=351[1] The promise and reality of redemption, that we are not alone, is throughout scripture. But so often it sounds like a platitude—“I am with you always,” “I will not leave you comfortless,” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Looks good on a plaque on the wall or on a bumper sticker, but when real life happens, the truth is in line with what a friend said to me once in the middle of a difficult time—“We come into the world alone and we leave the world alone.” Hard words, but true.

I was often challenged as a youngster to make a home for Jesus in my heart. For a five-year-old with a typically literal imagination, that didn’t make a lot of sense. I also heard a lot about God preparing a home for those who love God, a place in heaven after death. That didn’t interest me very much. But if we truly are not strangers in a strange land, if there truly is a home for each of us somewhere in this world of separation and alienation, that’s great news. A manger in a barn is not much of a home, but it has served as the centering touchstone for countless persons because a home is far more than a location or a physical structure. St Athanasius the Great[1]At the heart of Advent is the outrageous promise that we humans and the divine belong together. The fourth-century  church father Athanasius said “God became man so that man might become God.” There’s more in that claim than might be unpacked in a lifetime, but that’s the mystery that Advent prepares us for—a cosmic homecoming.

The Dawn From On High

blockisland1[1]It has been a beautiful spring in Rhode Island (so far). After more than a week of consecutive sunny days in the fifties and sixties, followed by two or three days of the sort of showers that humans grumble about but flowers and grass love, all of the growing things in the yard were smiling when I left for campus this morning. This all reminds me of my first Minnesota spring four years ago as I entered my last few weeks of sabbatical.

Leave it to me to go on sabbatical to central Minnesota, arriving in the middle of January. But after many bone-chilling and ass-freezing weeks, spring finally arrived. Autumn has always been my favorite season and probably will remain so, but I must admit I’ve never really given spring a chance. Spring comes slowly and late to northern Vermont where I grew up (sort of like it does to Minnesota), accompanied by lots of mud.mud[1] The real problem with spring, though, is that shortly after its arrival my allergies arrive. From late April to late May, basically the amount of time it takes all of the various trees to get with it and produce some leaves, my body has a fit. I remember some Vermont springs when my eyes reacted so violently to tree pollen that the inside lining of my eyelids began to peel away. Fortunately, there are allergy medicines available now that no one had even thought of fifty years ago, medicines that make it possible for me to function reasonably well during allergy season.

The arrival of Minnesota spring coincided with my finally pulling the trigger on a purchase Jeanne and I had talked about for a while—a digital camera. We are both the world’s worst picture takers. Well I guess we can’t both be the worst—let’s just say that we are the world’s worst picture-taking couple (although we are photogenic)481938_348335001913100_1730429546_n[1]. It’s not that we take bad pictures. It’s that we don’t take any pictures at all. On many occasions we’ve at least remembered to throw a disposable camera into the car or my backpack (Jeanne doesn’t carry a purse), swearing to God that this time the trip, wedding, birthday celebration, whatever, is going to be memorialized forever with disposable camera pictures. And every time we return with the camera in the same place we originally put it, having forgotten that we had it with us. Fortunately neither of my sons has ever showed much interest in seeing pictures of what’s happened in the past twenty years, because judging from the amount of pictures recording those years, nothing happened.

Given that the St. John’s University campus where I was spending sabbatical as a supposed scholar is located in the middle of a wildlife refuge with miles of walking trailsbest_buy_store-jc-home[1], I figured that perhaps this was a good time to finally purchase a digital camera. I went into Best Buy, headed for the digital camera section, and soon was joined by a very helpful young saleswoman. She offered to help me choose between the several camera specimens priced above $500, and I cut her off short. “You’ll never meet anyone more ignorant about digital cameras,” I confessed. “I need something $150 or under, preferably something that a trained monkey could take pictures with.” She smiled as she thought “I’ve heard this one before—you can’t be that ignorant about picture-taking,” but when I added “Here’s how behind the times I am with cameras; my wife and I have been using disposable cameras,” she looked at me as if I was either from Pluto or was a well-groomed Cro-Magnon man. I walked out of Best Buy in less than fifteen minutes having spent $171 (including tax) for a camera, carrying bag, and a super-duper memory card (she even had to explain to me what that is). I spent that evening at my ecumenical institute apartment charging the camera battery, reading a bit of the user’s manual, practicing taking pictures of the TV, my foot as I reclined in my chair, and a couple of accidental ones of the ceiling, and I was all set.

100_0116The next morning, and virtually every morning for my remaining Minnesota weeks, I walked for an hour or so on one of the many hiking trails through the swamps, prairie, and forests surrounding the university with my new purchase, just to see what I could see; I also was hoping that such walks would replace my daily torture session at the gym (they didn’t—I gained weight). 100_0313And I still can’t believe what I saw, both in quantity and quality. The various living things in the area must have had a meeting and decided to have mercy on the stupid fifty-three year old guy armed with a real camera for the first time. “Let’s all go out and pose for him for a few days, just so he doesn’t get discouraged.”100_0261 In no particular order, I saw and took excellent pictures of a bald eagle, loons, wood ducks, blue herons, brown herons, egrets, various deer who posed for me as if it was Oscars night, a red-winged blackbird, and all of my institute colleagues eating split-pea soup and drinking wine at an evening get together100_0032 (just another bunch of wild animals) . One morning as I walked behind the Abbey after morning prayer, I took great pictures of Canadian geese honking in annoyance that I had discovered their secret pond, eight or nine turtles piled on top of each other on a log trying to get a tan, and a gray squirrel.100_0183 I also took pictures of the large soaring birds that always were circling over the water tower close by the Abbey, and was bummed when a monk told me that they were turkey vultures. According to the picture organizing program that came with the camera, I downloaded over 250 pictures in the past week. For a few weeks, at least, I was a picture-taking fool.100_0360

Next Sunday’s Pentecost psalm is Psalm 104, a beautiful celebration of and tribute to the incredible, out-of-control exuberance expressed by the Creator through the various living things in our world. Wild asses, storks, rock badgers, lions, Leviathan—I didn’t see any of these in Minnesota, but I did see a lot of creatures the Psalmist doesn’t mention. The Psalmist raves about the earth “with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great,” just what I’d been taking pictures of the past few days. As I read morning prayer this morning, the sun rose and cast its unique “Look at me, I just got up” dawn light on the back yard.dawn[1] The canticle for the morning, as it is for every morning prayer, was a setting of “The Song of Zechariah,” which concludes with “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break open us.” Yes, I know that Zechariah is referring to the Messiah for whom baby John the Baptist will prepare the way, but this morning I chose to take some textual license. One of the ways the Creator shows love and mercy for us is by creating over and over and over again, every morning, every season, every year, in the intricacies of all creatures small and great. And I don’t even care if my eyes are itching and my nose is running a bit.


Sword Drills

Phillips66-Logo.svg[1]On one of my family’s summer western treks, we pulled into a Phillips 66 station to fill up. “What does the 66 stand for?” my dad asked, to which I immediately guessed “the 66 books of the Bible?” “Right,” he said. Although I found out many years later that this is not true, don’t blame my dad for feeding me false information. Many people thought that the number in Phillips 66 came from the books of the Bible, and the founder of Phillips Petroleum Company didn’t straighten people out about the name’s origin for years. Good publicity to keep people guessing. One of the first facts I learned about the Bible is how many books it contained.BibleBookcase[1] And I knew them cold. In Sunday school, little Baptists learned songs whose lyrics were the books of the Bible in order as soon as they learned to talk (usually before they learned to read). I still remember the song for the tricky minor prophets, the last twelve books of the Old Testament. I used to sing it on command at an early age very quickly in one breath–hosea-joel-amos-obadiah-jonah-micah-nahum-habbakuk-zephaniah-haggai-zechariah-malachi-GASP!–for the entertainment of my parents and their guests. At Bible camp one year there was a girl who could say the books of the Bible backwards (all of us could say them in correct order). I didn’t exactly see what the practical applications of that skill might be, but it was impressive.

Once we got a bit older, around eight or so, we learned another skill in Sunday School: how to find any verse in the Bible as quickly as possible. To hone this skill, we had competitions called “sword drills,” since Paul calls the word of God the “sword of the spirit” in Ephesians.Sword drill 2[1] Our teacher would say “draw your swords,” and we would raise our Bibles in one hand above our heads. Each of us had brought ours from home, of course—I don’t know what would have happened to someone who forgot their Bible, since I don’t recall it ever happening. The teacher would call out a Bible reference—book, chapter, and verse—and then, after a tantalizing pause, would shout “GO!!” Whoever found the scripture and started reading it first won. And I was good. I mean REALLY good. I had a cousin who used to win infrequently (maybe once every ten times), but other than that it was all me all the time. If the teacher said “John 3:16!3_16_1021[1] I would roll my eyes and think “Please. That’s in the Gospels. I know that one by heart—give us something challenging.” “Psalms 101:11!” “Come on, I can win that with one hand tied behind my back.” “Micah 6:8!” “Lamentations 4:2!” “Habakkuk 3:17!” “Now you’re talking,” I thought, as I got the verse then waited a moment, just to make things interesting, while my fellow sword-wielders fumbled around, reading the verse just as the kid next to me was getting ready to read it. “Now we’re separating the real sword masters from the wannabes.” normal[1]Hezekiah 17:32!” I watched my comrades with disdain as they plowed into their swords, pitying them and how foolish they would feel when they found out it was a trick command—there is no book of Hezekiah in the Bible. I wasn’t very good at traditional sports like football and basketball, but man I could wield a sword. Introducing sword drills to my Catholic students few years ago was a hoot, especially since for many of them it was the first time they had ever cracked a Bible.

So imagine my reaction—dismay, shock, outrage—when I found out that some people (who shall remain nameless) added some extra books to the Bible, jammed in between the Old and New Testaments, and actually thought this is acceptable! I can remember exactly when it happened. In the late sixties and early seventies (my junior high and high school years), several new translations of the Bible came outFree-Download-King-James-Bible-KJV-Bible[1]. This was disturbing enough, since in my crowd “King James” was not the star of the Miami Heat—“King James” was the name of the only authoritative translation of the Bible. We were taught to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God; no one corrected us when we additionally assumed that God had dictated the book in King James English. But when I looked in one of these new translations and saw a bunch of unfamiliar books under the collective title “The Apocrypha,” I thought “What the hell is this??” “First and Second Maccabees”? “Baruch”? “The Song of the Three Men”? “Tobit”? That sounds like something from Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground lived a tobit.” “Bel and the Dragon”? What’s that, a comic book? apoc1[1]I didn’t know what to think, except that someone had been messing around with my Bible, and I was pissed.

I have to admit that, although it’s now over forty years later, I’ve never read any of these books in their entirety. There are some bits and pieces of apocryphal books in the Episcopal prayer book as canticles for morning and evening prayer, which isn’t surprising since we Episcopalians are willing to appropriate anything from any tradition so long as it is good liturgy, fine music, or profound literature, always assuming that it will also support a liberal, left-leaning mindset. But I feel a bit odd reading parts of “The Song of the Three” or “The Prayer of Manasseh,” as if I’m doing something wrong. Old habits and beliefs die hard, especially when they were established in the cradle.

I stopped believing that the Bible is the inerrant, literal word of God while still in my teens (I’m not sure I ever really believed it), and have occasionally wondered since then exactly what the Bible is for me nowbiblethumpingjesus[1]. It is part of my tradition, my heritage, and my history. I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity, although often a forced one, to make its stories, its poetry, its history, part of my intellectual foundation at a very early age—foundations laid at such an age remain largely intact. I rely on that foundation every day in the classroom and during outside-of-class conversations with students and colleagues. It is a shared touchstone in Jeanne’s and my life. And I still am thoroughly comfortable with calling it the word of God—but what exactly does that mean?

I recall a memorable Sunday evening in my early twenties when a venerable Bible scholar, an elder at the large church my family was attending and the godfather of my then six-month-old firstborn son, stood behind the pulpit, raised his Bible above eye level for all to see (almost like a sword drill) and said with great courage to a largely evangelical congregation: “This is not the word of God! This is a bunch of pages between leather covers written by human beings. Spirit-gives-life-300x300[1]It becomes the word of God when the Holy Spirit writes its message in your heart. Remember, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Other than a gasp or two, you could have heard a pin drop.

But he was right. As I’ve returned to the texts of my youth over the past few years in both communal and private reading, new life has risen in me. Noon prayer in the Benedictine liturgy of the hours always begins with several verses from Psalm 119, which is the longest chapter in the Bible and is all about the glories of God’s word. The Psalmist never says a thing about the written word—God’s word always is hidden in our hearts, written in our minds, lived out in our actions. And as my son’s godfather implied, the Spirit can transform anything, any text, written or otherwise, into the word of God. The Bible in my experience is special because it is at the heart of what I believe 100_0938and its words have become God’s word for me more often than any other source. But it could be Shakespeare. Or Nietzsche. Or Jeanne. Or my dachshunds. Or the sun rising this morning—in a sacramental world, anything can be the word of God. Even Tobit, I suppose.

God Made Into Flesh

It's_A_Wonderful_Life[1]Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.”

Movies with Biblical themes were both attractive and problematic in my early years. We did not go to movies, but it was okay to watch them on TV (go figure), except on Sundays (go figure again).DVD_Quo-Vadis[1] Of particular interest were Hollywood epics of Biblical proportions, such as “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “The Robe,” and “Quo Vadis.” Moses always has, in my imagination, looked like Charlton Heston (and, I guess, like Ben Hur). Even more daring were the various Hollywood portrayals of Jesus, from “muscular Jesus” in “King of Kings” and “cerebral Jesus” in the-greatest-story-ever-told[1]“The Greatest Story Ever Told” to, some years later, “ethereal and almost effeminate Jesus” in “Jesus of Nazareth.” I have many memories of fellow fundamentalists watching such movies with me and saying “That’s not Scriptural” and “That’s not Biblical” when characters from the sacred text said or did things that were not contained within the leather covers of the King James Version.

220px-The_Nativity_Story[1]“The Nativity Story” would not entirely escape such criticism, but it presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod AntipasNativity. These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? I have a friend who tends to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories.line-in-the-sand[1] Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who know and love him expect him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.”

Toward the end of every fall semester, I spend a couple of weeks in the New Testament with a classroom full of college freshmen in the interdisciplinary course I teach in. Knowing that this was a group, largely the product of twelve years of parochial school education, for whom the Bible in college might be a tough sell, one year I asked my seminar group an out of the box question right at the start: What difference does it make whether these stories are or aren’t true? If it were definitively proven tomorrow that Jesus never existed, then what? A fascinating discussion ensued, full of more nuance and insight than even I expected. Contributions ranged across the spectrum of possibilities, but one student’s comment particularly stayed with me. “I’d still be a Christian,” she said, “because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the virgin birth is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight.melchior[1] At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” There it is in its simplicity and iconoclasm—the heart and soul of Christianity. God made into flesh.

When did the Incarnation become “mine” for the first time? Was it when I consciously noted new space deep inside of me while reciting a Psalm at noon prayer? Was it when I realized that I was no longer angry at people and issues from my past that had consumed my life100_0261? Was it while playing hide-and-seek with a couple of deer on a trail? Was it when I heard Catherine of Genoa’s “My deepest me is God” in a homily? It truly doesn’t matter when it happened, just that it did. On good days, I can look at another human being and detect holiness. On really, really good days, I can even turn my eyes inward and find something beautiful. I can say, with gratitude, awe, and disbelief all tangled together, along with Melchior gazing at the manger, “God made into flesh.” Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas