December 14, 2014
Recently as we shared coffee a friend and I were discussing the use of story to express and to conserve truth. We were thinking about the way in which truth expressed in story exists in paradox—the concrete that expresses material reality yet simultaneously serves as metaphor at the liminal threshold of knowing.
Later I was thinking about the ways in which this paradox occurs in the Christmas story.
The whole thing begins concretely enough: Caesar Augustus (yes, that specific Caesar) required that a census be taken, and everyone be registered. Luke dates the event with historical precision—this happened, Luke notes, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Luke’s story proceeds in flat realistic detail.
Responding to Caesar’s edict, Joseph took his very pregnant wife and set out from Nazareth for Bethlehem because he was of the lineage of David. By the time they reached Bethlehem, Mary was in labor. Bethlehem inns were already filled with travelers and Joseph could find no room for them. Faced with necessity (babies are not easily postponed), the couple took shelter where they could—in a stable—and when the birth was accomplished, Mary wrapped the new born infant in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.
Up to this point the story reflects the “real” world of that distant time as history documents it: Rome, the rule of the Caesars, religious conflicts, political edicts and policy decisions that held little consideration for the well-being of the poor and no concern for their hardships.
The story moves forward matter-of-factly.
There were shepherds camping in the fields surrounding Bethlehem keeping watch over their sheep, Luke continues. At this point we might expect an explanation indicating the reason the shepherds watched their sheep at night, a factual detail that would fit well into Luke’s account.
Instead, Luke abruptly abandons the reality represented by Caesar’s political program, crowded inns, pregnant women and babies being born at inconvenient times in unsuitable places.
Without a pause, with no anticipatory warning, the story moves into a reality in which angels talk to the shepherds (apparently in their own language) and angels report real-time, real-world events (the new baby sleeping in a manger in the cave) and give geographically specific directions so that the shepherds could go to see the new born child.
At the end of the visit, the talking angels were joined by a great crowd of singing angels surrounded by glorious galaxy-reflected light beyond description. Careful about every detail, Luke reports that the songs these angels sang were about God’s greatness and peace and good will.
Then in the story, Luke abruptly returns to Caesar’s world.
The amazing light vanishes from the night sky and the angels go away. The narrative resumes with the shepherds holding a lively discussion between themselves. At the end of the discussion the shepherds decide to go into Bethlehem and check out the angels’ story.
The directions given by the angel proved to be reliable. When the shepherds arrived at the stable they found the baby lying in a manger just as the angels had said.
Luke reports this in the same factual tone in which he dated his story “. . . when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” When hearing this story, people commonly regard the census event Luke reported as a “true story” because historical records support Luke’s account of the event.
However, they find it more difficult (particularly when talking with a scientist-like person) to know how to think about the talking-singing-angels-event in the story. They will concede that the angel event is an interesting story, but they are less certain that it is a “true story.”
Without conscious awareness, they are reflecting the belief that truth—all truth—will be evident through quantifiable data and historical documentation. This assumption about the way in which we know truth is largely the product of the Enlightenment era.
Postmodern criticism has successfully pointed out the faulty nature of this assumption. Nevertheless the idea still continues to confuse the way we identify and internalize truth. Additionally, it diminishes our ability to profit from story.
Although Luke was a physician and a scientist in his day, he did not have this faulty assumption to confuse him. He lived as a reporter of truth in whatever form he found it. In his story Luke moves seamlessly between two different manifestations of truth.
There was the truth of human experience that he documented historically (the census); that which he observed (sheep and shepherds and inns with no vacancies); and natural phenomena—men and women and pregnancy and babies.
However, Luke also observed something that appeared to flow out of a different reality—angels that talked and gave directions and sang songs. Luke’s story delineates both realities, but Luke did not make the difference between the census event and the angel-song-event a matter of truth vs. imaginative invention. Luke reported both census and angel song, both as real and both as true.
God loves stories. His book has so many great ones. Story telling was one of Jesus’s favorite teaching tools when He was with us.
I think that one reason God loves stories so much is the capacity of story to weave many forms of truth into an integrated whole meaning that becomes embodied in human understanding.
“And it came to pass that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus. . . .And there was no room in the inn. . . and the angel came. . . the shepherds were very frightened. . . and the angel said. . . .you will find the baby lying in a manger. . . and the shepherds came in haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. . . and the shepherds returned [to their sheep].”
I am asking this year for the gift of a light-filled heart so that I can hear the Christmas story and all the truth that it proclaims.
Blessed Advent. See you next week.