Grace in the gaps between us
One of the best known stories from the Christian scriptures is, of course, the story of Christmas. Whether rendered in plastic or clay or straw or glass, you can buy a nativity scene almost anywhere. You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize this old, old story, and have your imagination caught by its meaning: even in these dark days of winter, hope endures, born in the form of a tiny child. Jesus brings together heaven and earth in tiny newborn hands. I love that we in the cold Northeast receive this gift at this hard time of year.
Looking more closely, though, we also have the opportunity to invite a closer look at the Christmas story, the part that you can’t see in those manger scenes. Like everything, it’s more complicated than it looks. Here’s the trouble: the Bible doesn’t say just one thing. There are four different accounts of Jesus’ life, and each one says something different about where he came from and why his life was important.
The shepherds only show up at the manger when the author of the Gospel of Luke tells the story. The magi, wise ones from the East, visit Jesus after his miraculous birth takes place in a house (in the book of Matthew). The Gospel of Mark mentions not one word about Mary as visited by the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ birth—he just starts off right away with Jesus’ ministry as an adult. The Gospel of John offers a fourth account, talking about Jesus not as miraculously given to Mary, but the one through whom the whole world came to be, the Word of God. No manger or house, in that one, no Holy Spirit and a young girl, or her profound declaration of “yes” to God.
So what gives? Why couldn’t the church have gotten its stories straight? With something as important as the birth of the one we call our savior, shouldn’t we at least have one answer about where he came from? We can try to harmonize the accounts like we do in our greeting cards, but I think we miss something when we impose an order that’s not there. Those shepherds are important, but not the whole story. They symbolize the birth of God at the margins, in the outcast—the pregnant homeless teenager. Those wise ones, coming from the East, symbolize the universal nature of God, the fact that sometimes truth is recognized by those outside your own kin. We need shepherds and kings, cosmic Christ and Jesus just appearing out of nowhere.
I don’t know how these many different stories sounded to the earliest Christians, but I believe in our world now the message of these different ways of believing couldn’t be more timely. In a world rife with religious strife, what we all need most is some humility. We need, crucially, to remember that it could be otherwise—there could be many truths, many different ways to understand. God speaks many languages and tells many stories to God’s people.
As an Episcopalian, with my planned-out worship in a big stone church, I need to remember that the storefront Pentecostals also know Jesus. As a Christian, I need to remember that my Muslim brothers and sisters also know One God, Creator of heaven and earth. I need to remember that in my human mind, I can’t know how all the stories come together: not the stories of my own faith, and not where those stories touch the sacred stories of others. I need to remember the mystery of love, and the grace of God that fills in the gaps between us.
Printed in the Waltham News Tribune Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015.
More Christmas is here--listen in on my sermon from our service at Christ Church on Dec. 24!