The Truth about the Christmas Stories

Sir John Polkinghorne, the renowned particle physicist who, as a second career, became an Anglican priest, tells a story that’s very insightful.  The members of his first parish weren’t sure if they would be able to understand sermons delivered by this very accomplished scientist.  Dr. John Polkinghorne quickly changed that perception during his first sermon at the parish.  Addressing the topic of truth, Polkingham asked the question, “Why is the kettle of water boiling?”  He noted that one explanation would address the rise in temperature as exciting the particles in water that causes the water to boil.  Clearly, that answer is true.  However, another answer may be that I am making a cup of tea to share with a friend.  The second answer is also true. While both answers are equally true, they speak to different realities.

When thinking about the truth of Christmas conveyed in biblical stories about the birth of Jesus, I find Polkinghorn’s sermon illustration on truth to be very helpful.  The stories concerning the birth of Jesus are found in the gospel accounts attributed to Matthew and Luke.  While we commonly mix the details of the two accounts into one, Matthew and Luke recount events that conflict with each other.

In Matthew’s story, we are told that Caesar Augustus ordered a census of the Roman Empire; that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, the home of one of Joseph’s ancestors more than twenty generations prior; that a star appeared in the sky; and that astrologers brought a symbolic assortment of gifts.  Luke’s story is about Mary, who learned of her pregnancy from an angel, and then visited her cousin. According to Luke, at the time of the child’s birth, angels sang in the sky and shepherds came from the fields to watch.  In reviewing the details, the only agreement in the two stories seems to be that Mary had a baby and named him Jesus, a very common name in that era that means “God saves.”

Where is truth in the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus?  Today we know that there is no historic evidence that Cesar Augustus ordered a census.  While some astronomers suggest that there may have been a comet near the time of the birth of Jesus, there is no evidence that a star stood still in one place.  We’ll never know about visits from astrologers or shepherds other than to say that there is no other record beyond the biblical accounts.  For that matter, while there is some record from other historical documents that Jesus, an itinerant rabbi, existed in the first century, there is not much evidence to support any of the details many Christians hold today as factually true.

As for the facts of these two stories, we’ll never know whether they are true or not.  The only evidence to support them is from the gospel accounts attributed to Matthew and Luke, and the two stories don’t even agree with each other! While the facts are not verifiable, can anyone say that the stories are true?

Both stories describe people living in difficult times.  In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are forced by edict to take a long, arduous journey and then give birth to their first child in a cave.  Foreign star-gazers travel from unknown lands to visit them.  There are many personal difficulties, yes, even tragedies in Matthew’s story.  These themes continue in Luke’s account. Luke tells of an unwed teenage girl who is lucky enough to have an older suitor marry her.  The only ones who recognize the birth of the child as a wonderful event are people marginalized by society: uneducated shepherds, who live with animals; homeless old people who are down on their luck and live in the temple; and a relative who was believed to be cursed because she was barren for years.  The Christmas story is surrounded by people struggling to manage with serious difficulties in life.  In the midst of the human suffering and tragedy, hope is born.  The very clear message in both stories is that in the midst of human struggle, a promise of a bright tomorrow dawns when and where it is least expected.

Today, in much of the world, we live in a dark time.  It seems as though governments have failed us.  People are divided against one another for ideological reasons.  We feel powerless to deal with the ways our communities and society are falling apart.  While the details of today are very different from the lives of the people in the biblical narrative, we are like them:  living in the midst of struggle and human tragedy.  It is in this context that the truth of the Christmas story takes shape:  there is hope for tomorrow!  Just as the story of a child born long ago gave light to the world, the truth of Christmas is that we can find a brighter tomorrow for our world.

It makes no difference to me if there was a star, a choir of angels, or even a virgin-birth.  What’s most important is the truth that hope can be born anew in any age, even in desperate times like our own. After all, isn’t the birth of hope in desperate times something that angels should sing about?  When faced with difficult times, isn’t the promise of a better tomorrow worth more than gold?  Yes, there is truth in the Christmas story that rings out through the night of our darkest times. This truth is vital to every generation, especially for those facing difficult times.

 

Photo by Waiting For The Word on Foter.com / CC BY

 

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Coming of God-With-Us

As twilight falls, I sit in a favorite chair in my study.  The glow of the candles casts shadows in the room from their placement near an icon in a corner. In the stillness, I begin to sing a familiar hymn:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel….

The weeks before Christmas known as advent are a time of waiting, watching, hoping, and expecting.  It’s a time marked by a longing for a new birth of God’s presence in the world.  It’s a time of quiet and stillness that’s far different from the business and noise of holiday shopping and parties.

The verses of the traditional hymn, O Come, Emmanuel, have their origin in the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.  The hymn itself traces its roots back to the 8th Century CE.  Over the centuries, its verses have been sung at evening prayer in monasteries. One verse is chanted each evening during the week before Christmas as a solemn prayer that God would come to bring hope, healing, comfort, and liberation.

While this ancient tradition is part of my own advent practice, I am struck by a certain dichotomy found in the words of the hymn.  This dichotomy reflects a tension within Christian spirituality.  Each verse is an earnest prayer for the Holy One to come into some aspect of life where there is brokenness or sorrow.  The refrain conveys a call to joy based on the hopeful conviction that the Divine presence will heal all brokenness.  Yet, in the midst of the longing, a fundamental affirmation of Christian faith can’t be lost:  that the core of who we are most deeply is a reflection of the Divine.  As George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, said so clearly:  “There is that which is of God in everyone.”  In other words, we long for God’s presence yet God’s presence is already deep within us.

Perhaps it is part of human nature to not be able to grasp that we carry within us a deep, profound connection with the Source of all Life.  In our day to day living, we are simply more aware of our limitations and failings that we are of the wonder of our being.

The advent tradition of watching and waiting for the coming of God provides an opportunity to focus our awareness on the experience of God’s presence which is already within and around us.  The Divine presence permeates our lives. It is found in the people we meet.  This sacred presence animates the world around us.  The anticipation of God’s coming has more to do with our willingness to be more fully awake to the mystery that permeates all of life. This mystery also stirs within us, drawing us toward wholeness and completion.

Yes, our experience is that we need to be ransomed from the things that hold us captive, to be released from the things that limit us, and to be bound intimately in deep connection with others and the Divine Source.  These are the prayers of the verses of this advent hymn.  At the same time, as we awaken to the awareness of that energy and presence which liberates, brings wholeness, and draws us intimately to others is a fundamental part of who we are, we have good reason to find joy in life.

O Come, Emmanuel.  Yes: Emmanuel, that is “God-is-with-us.”   We anticipate how the God who is with us will be found in new and unexpected ways.

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Healing Inner Pain

There are times I think about growing up and how wonderful it was.  When I was very young, I’d play for hours in my sandbox.  As I got older, I’d go walking in the woods and play beside the creek.  In time, I learned to drive and like most of my generation I’d hang out at the mall.  The doors at home were never locked.  I remember feeling safe.  Yes, there are lots of good memories.

But to be honest, those are the things I choose to focus on from my years growing up.  They were part of my experience growing up, but there were also other parts that were painful and confusing.

My parents did the best they could but we were what therapists call a blended family.  (That was before the Brady Bunch made blended families more acceptable.)  My father was my mother’s second husband.  Her first husband had been killed in an accident and she was left with two young children.  In the 1950’s, this was something of a scandal.  While my parents did the best they could to create the appearance of a happy family, there were lots of secrets and tensions I never really understood.  In time, my family disintegrated.

I went to the best schools available in my area.  I believe I received the best education I could have and appreciate that.  But there was a lot of abuse.  In grade school, there was physical abuse from some of the teachers under the guise of discipline.  In high school, several of the priests were pedophiles.  Of course, this wasn’t publically known for decades.  With the sexual abuse occurring, there were layers of manipulation particularly by the vice-principal and the director of the music program, two of the pedophile priests.  Then another made sexually inappropriate comments about nuns while teaching religion class.

Not surprisingly, I was targeted as the gay kid.  That resulted in my getting beat-up often.  Freshman year was the worst.  I was assigned as the only freshman in a sophomore gym class. (It was the pedophile vice principal who made the schedule.)

I’m not writing all this to say what a rough life I had or to seek sympathy.  Instead, I want to suggest that life is complex, often marked by amazing experiences and significant pain.  I’ve known both.  As I move further into my elder years, I have a very clear understanding that healing doesn’t change what’s happened in the past.  But healing has allowed me to come to a sense of peace with what was — while holding closely the best memories.

It’s difficult to let go of pain and hurt.  Sometimes doing so requires therapy, medication, and a variety of treatments.  For me, an essential part of healing has been contemplative practice.  It’s been by simply learning to be still and present in silence, in prayer and meditation, the pains of the past have slowly faded.  I remember events, but the emotional content is released.  In letting it go, I’ve been able to come to appreciate some of the wonderful aspects of my life which were previously clouded by the pain.  At this point, I am content to say that I’ve had a good life…and I am thankful for it.

We each carry wounds and scars from our past.  I don’t think it’s possible to be alive and to escape hardship.  But living a good life isn’t a matter of not having pain.  Instead, to be alive is a matter of finding ways to heal our brokenness.  Healing our brokenness doesn’t happen in an instant but is a process which takes time.  But such healing enables us to open our hearts to embrace life with greater fullness and happiness.

 

Photo credit:  Serkan Göktay  CC0 License www.pexels.com

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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