Chet Raymo, professor emeritus at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, in his popular book, “The Soul of the Night,” wrote, “I am a child of the Milky Way. The night is my mother. I am made of the dust of stars. Every atom in my body was forged in a star. … The star clouds in Sagittarius are a burning bush. If there is a voice in Sagittarius, I’d be a fool not to listen. If God’s voice in the night is a scrawny cry, then I’ll prick up my ears.” Raymo’s words provide a doorway to my own musings on Christmas.
Yes, if there is a voice in Sagittarius! If God’s voice in the night is a scrawny cry, I’d be a fool not to listen. I too will prick up my ears for that plaintive whimpering.
As poet Carl Sandberg wrote in “Star Silver”:
“… back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum
A baby’s first cry mixing with the crunch
of a mule’s teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn
Baby fists softer than snowflakes of Norway
The vagabond Mother of Christ
and the vagabond men of wisdom
all in a barn on a winter’s night
and a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay —
Why does the story never wear out?”
For those of us who have learned to live with nuance and ambiguity the story never tires. Christmas Eve finds us wending our way to church — there to “rejoice … with heart and soul and voice.”
Unabashedly, we allow ourselves to be taken in by the ancient texts. Pensively, we give ourselves to the story’s once upon a time how in far off Bethlehem Town angel-song erupted over sleeping shepherds proclaiming, “Be not afraid … for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
THE NEW TESTAMENT Christmas story in the telling is a nuanced melding of memory, longing and fulfillment, a lens through which the reader might look upon its wondrously laced answer to what Carl Jung called the telling question of life: Are we related to something infinite or not? Is there an Infinite Presence that knows us?
The Christmas story poetically affirms God’s gracious love for us. It does not, however, lend itself as source material for any kind of dogma. Here are no facts as we might want facts.
Christmas is not defended by emphasizing dogma at the expense of mystery, rationality at the expense of experience and confidence at the expense of doubt. Rather, we enter into Christmas allowing its nuance, ambiguity and mystery.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU wrote in “Walden,” speaking of the harsh reality of New England winters, that the “winter was given us much as a bone is given to a famishing dog and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.” Just so!
Christmas is the bone we have to gnaw on. The marrow is there — it is this strange and marvelous tale of God’s coming into human history. Christianity is founded upon this intrusion of God in the person of Jesus. Still, there is no way we shall ever trap the mystery of Immanuel — God with us.
We need to come to the Christmas texts with a different mind-set. Theologian Eugene Kennedy allowed that many elements of the Bible seem lifeless and unbelievable because we have regarded as facts those texts that are first and foremost metaphorical representations of spiritual reality.
Doing so, we have tended to debase the biblical narratives. On the other hand, the Christmas story when rightly listened to allows our minds to cross boundaries that would otherwise be closed to us.
In order to appreciate the mystery and inexhaustibility of the universe, our age more than any other needs to be taught again the nature of wonder and surprise.
Moreover, if we are to come to the truth about God’s ways with us, then we need to learn how to live with a certain astonishment.
Barry Lopez, in his essay “Crossing Open Ground,” wrote, “I think of the dignity that is ours when we cease to demand the truth and realize that the best we can have of those substantial truths that guide our lives is metaphorical — a story.”
Are we prepared to wait long enough in the presence of the Christmas story for its tinsel and magic to touch us? In Bernard Shaw’s play, “Saint Joan,” Joan hears the voices from God. The king is annoyed. “Oh, your voices, your voices,” he says, “Why don’t your voices come to me? I am the king not you.”
“They do come,” replied Joan, “but you do not hear them. You have not sat in the field in the evening listening for them. When the Angeles rings you cross yourself and have done with it, but if you prayed from your heart and listened to the thrilling of the bells in the air after they stopped ringing, you would hear the voices as well as I do.”
Faith, Joan knew and we discover, is a moistened finger held toward the reality of God’s presence in the midst of life. Is it too much to pray that, with Mary, our ponderings, though forged in the crucible of our doubt, will in the end become a tantara avowing a hosanna of belief?
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation at the First Parish Church in Saco.