It is really not that surprising that very early notions of the major topics/issues/questions/enigmas/worries/blessings/fears/hopes of our species were committed to some form of story-telling that emerged from and demonstrated our best answers.
The Garden of Eden, Moses in the bull rushes, The Decalogue, the Histories of royal families, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the poets’ and prophets’ visions, the love songs and then in a major transition, the birth of a miraculous baby, following immaculate conception (as did other stories of significant births at the time) and then, of course, Death and the Resurrection and the vision of an eternal city. As a compendium of elevated and for many sacred stories, this ‘canon’ has given western civilizations an archetypal, literary, historic, prophetic and moral/ethical foundation on which to construct disciplined reflection and healthy and healing lives and communities.
As a book of human meta-history, imaginary visions, pastoral poetics and prayers, heroic interventions (and others not so much!) beginning in a ‘garden’ and passing through multiple dynamics into a city, the Bible is a mirror and also a lamp for the human journey. Whether it is better than any other, or even whether such comparisons are valid, seems inconsequential and even pointless, unless one’s life of scholarship draws one to such investigations. There is a compelling reason behind the text for those seeking to probe its complexities, its narratives, its parables, its archetypal choices, and its application to everyday life, to develop a skill in deciphering the nuances within and behind the words.
Literacy is much more than vacuuming the details for memory purposes, trivial pursuit games, and power-tripping over others less “informed”. Information, the idol of our times, is however, a hollow icon, without a corresponding, compelling and commensurate meaning derived from the “data”. Two other concepts from contemporary vernacular, context and culture, also point toward some broader notions than specific data points, to the time in which words and ideas were committed to parchment, and the nature of both the denotative and connotative meanings were/are attached to specific words and concepts. Scholars, like those of the Jesus Seminar, representing a rainbow of Christian faith communities and academic disciplines have worked diligently to ferret out some of the differences between original intent and the range of subsequent interpretations of primarily the New Testament.
Of course, the literalists have heaped scorn and contempt on their work, dubbing it heresy if and when it collided with and contradicted those “spiritual” nuggets considered inviolate for centuries in their communities. A prime example focuses on the ‘words’ of Jesus from the four gospels, which those scholars have ranked from credible to less and less credible to mere tradition. How possibly, in the minds of some, could the words of Jesus be “ranked” by any single or group of humans, is how some approach such work.
And, that story serves as a paradigm for much of the public evaluation of holy writ, all the way from “law” to be strictly taught, imposed and enforced, to the spirit of the faith, derived from a gestalt including the ‘inspiring’ and the ‘mystical’ the unexpected and even the miraculous…all of it opening the option of incomprehension and awe at the stories, the parables, the paradoxes and the poetry. Space, as we continue to discovery, the human anatomy and capacity to conceive, gestate, birth, develop and grow….including the plethora of both talents and pitfalls, the many ‘universes’ that comprise the various systems and creatures, living things, the incomprehensible multiple interactions of living creatures with their various environments….all of these are gifts and blessings for those with the prescience and the patience and the strength and the ‘weakness’ to experience the various states of a fully-lived life.
Curiosity, awe, delight, energy, creativity, enthusiasm, and the commitment to engage and share with others in a committed and collaborative and supportive manner are some of the impulses that accompany a spirit of gratitude and humility arise from and sustain a life of faith. Naturally, tensions, conflicts and impediments will also shape and even block many of those impulses of light.
It is in the “spirit” of humility, gratitude and awe and openness to mystery that this piece seeks to approach the birth of a baby in a far-off land, in a distant time, given the multiple layers of story-telling and study over many centuries. Reducing our reflection to cognition just will not be adequate. Reducing our reflection to an emotional high, too, will also curtail its potential to identify and participate in a story that is not completely able to be ‘grasped’ by our intellect, comprehended by our wildest speculation, or eviscerated of potential by our cynical, venomous need for complete control.
It was a Roman Catholic sister, Mary Mulcahy, professor of Educational Foundations who delivered the message of the importance of both the attitude and the mystery of human life that embodies the spiritual life. Another Roman Catholic sister “Bridget” one of the Benedictine Nuns in Kansas, embodied the spirit of ‘hospitality’ as her spiritual gift and life, for all those who risked driving ten hours through blinding snow to enter a retreat in Atchison. A French teacher named Jean in a small Ontario town also walked a path of reverent authenticity and humility that illumed her profound and intimate intellect and modelled a life of spiritual discipline, without bravado or even formal recognition. A Jesuit theologian hosted urban retreats, noting after a mere weekend, “If I had subjected you to a week-long retreat, it would have killed you; you simply could not have remained silent for that long!” And then there was the clergy-collared protester who stood with First Nations to block the huge machines of international logging corporations, on behalf of the indigenous community and culture, and against the greed and rape of nature that was intended.
We all have ‘shoulders’ on which we are honoured and humbled to walk, shoulders that lift us from our head-down, eyes half-closed, hearts beating limply, minds that limp from depression and fatigue and stooped spines that seem to bear the weight of hopelessness. Whether we link meaning and purpose, as do the existentialists, to hopelessness, or the overcoming of personal/familial/communal injustices to new life (as do the social justice practitioners), or the transformation of a single “Damascus Road” dazzling light to a change in life direction (as do the born-again revelationists), or adopt a disciplined quiet prayerful reflection and reading and meditation as a stabilizing spiritual pilgrimage (as the monks and nuns have done for centuries), or bring a homeless youth into our home as our expression of a life of faith and evangelism….or write a concerto dedicated to the grace of God, or…or…we are in our own unique manner attempting to bring a tiny light into what we perceive of (and believe to be) a quite dark and cynical and vindictive and frightened world.
However we conceive ‘the holy’ and the sacred, and however we link our bodies, minds and spirits to expressing and supporting the holy and the sacred, we are inevitably relying on the inspiring models of stories that infuse our mind, heart and spirit with a kind of energy that, alone, we would not have either found or expected. Some posit that we are hardwired to be social, helpful, engaged and relational. Some, on the other hand, project a division of the human/secular from the holy/divine, and posit a universal struggle between the forces of darkness and light. While others, aspiring to a different posture, articulate a unity of the holy and the secular in order to enhance the potential for “good” in the widest sense and application of that concept.
However we individually ‘see’ our lives in relation to the divine, most of us seem to be drawn to stories that connect, support, lift up and love the other, while we also seem to be withered and dried out by those stories that abuse, destroy, undermine and betray. And yet, if we are fully open and honest, we are all capable of both kind of attitudes, actions, beliefs and visions.
Birthing new life, as compared with what is ‘not working for us’ as we can see it today, can only be inspired and enhanced by reflecting on a story of a holy baby, immaculately conceived and brought to life in a stable to humble parents (unmarried?). Special ‘stars’ that guide the rich and the powerful to bring ‘gifts’ as a sign of momentary humility, awe and reverence, enhance the ‘picture’ (setting) of the narrative, bringing each of us more intimately connected to the story.
And, that connection, that oneness, that recognition and conscious acknowledgement and acceptance of our relation to the story of the ‘holy night’, however we might imagine, conceive and believe that connection to exist and to shape our personal story, lies at the heart of all stories about God, the divine and the eternal.
There really are no surrogates for such a connection to the holy and the light of the divine. There are no accomplishments that can begin to substitute, replace or fulfill that relation. There are no objects, ‘brands’ or certificates that replicate this relationship. And there are no cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, oratorios, anthems, masterpieces that fully reproduce the holy….and yet we all try and we have been trying for centuries. And try we must.
It is in trying that we point our lives in a different direction. It is in reflecting fully, honestly and courageously that we enhance the potential for connections in love that we, by ourselves, could and would never have imagined. It is a prospect that, unless and until we see our tiny speck of life as part of a much larger, eternal, communal and caring community enveloped and sustained by a model of eternal love (birth, struggle, death and new life) we limit our potential as a light to others.
We are not here as mere function in spite of the common equating of task with life purpose. We are not here as the means to another’s ends, although many fully believe that our society could not and would not function without that cornerstone. We are not here to inflate our ego’s through profits and possessions, nor to acquire the biggest and the brightest and the latest toys, in order to win at some game. In fact, it is the transactional pounding pulse of the machine for profit and fame that distracts our attention from those things that really matter, the kind of moment that brings us into ‘connection’ with the mood, the meaning, the potential and the blessing of the birth of this moment….
And it is not conceivable to reflect on such a moment without remembering:
· all of those moments that we did not recognize for their potential gift,
· those moments that we walked away from, fearing our inadequacy,
· those moments when we actually dimmed our own light, in order to avoid responsibility and the accompanying gift of reconciliation that impregnated those moments
· those moments that we “knew” better than another whose need for control we judged as dominant, and not their capacity to care for and to love us
· those moments when we judged the other as incapable of change, unwilling to change, unable and unwilling to ‘hear’ our need
· those moments in which the authority that ‘governed’ did not and would not afford ‘due process’ to what we believe was and remains their injustice
· those moments in which we came to the brink of putting out an idea to reconcile, and drew back fearing rejection and a repetition of old patterns of a different time, place and cast of characters
· those moments when we foreclosed on bridging brokenness, healing open wounds, and confronting our own inner betrayer
The birth of a holy baby in a manger in a stable is not a story with which our contemporary culture is familiar, at least in the ‘developed’ world. And yet, the story vibrates with new hope, new beginnings, newly discovered emotional, intellectual and social impulses for acceptance of self, of the other (especially those we find ‘incorrigible’ and irascible), and of others very different from ourselves.
Will we even look metaphorically skyward this Christmas Season, in search of those new births that are waiting for our discovery?