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The great story we already know by heart: Joseph and a very pregnant Mary forced to trek 90 miles to Bethlehem to satisfy the Roman Emperor; lowly shepherds who were about to nod off while watching their flocks startled by angels who lit up the night sky; stargazers from the East lured by an extraordinary glow in the sky searching for what mystery it might reveal; the exhausted young couple eventually reaching their destination only to be denied a room and forced to bed down with animals; and finally, the magnificent moment of the birth and the tiny baby boy being placed in a manager.
The colorful characters and the intrigue involved in the birth of Jesus is being celebrated throughout our planet. But, what do we sophisticated 21st century North Americans make of this story? Are the details historical facts, or do they point to something more?
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan remark that the “Enlightenment led many people to think that truth and factuality are the same…According to this way of thinking, if something isn’t factual, it isn’t true.”1 However, we see the fallacy of this way of thinking if we consider the parables of Jesus. They teach us deep truths about life, but we would never insist that they describe actual historical events.
So, rather than thinking of the birth narratives as events that occurred exactly as described, some of us will find it helpful to think of the stories as more like parables. That is, the meaning and truth of the stories is not dependent on whether angels really burst into the night sky or magi followed a star.
In place of insisting that the various aspects surrounding the birth of Jesus be taken literally, what would happen if we simply allowed the story to wash over us creating a sense of awe? The story proclaims that the Creator of the Cosmos was uniquely present in the babe in Bethlehem and there is no denying that the history of the world was forever changed by his life. If we shift gears into skepticism and nitpick the details, we stifle the mystery and wonder of it all. Writer Wes Granberg-Michaelson puts it succinctly. He says, “Christmas is irrational. That’s kind of the point.”2
I’m sure you have stared at the sky on a crystal clear night. One way to look at it is to catalogue the location of the moon, the planets that are visible, the constellations you can identify, and the brightness and dimness of various stars. Another way to peer at it is to ponder the fact that there are billions of stars in billions of galaxies and to allow the vastness of the universe to produce a sense of wonder. Philosopher Emily Brady notes that we can focus on the intellectual and mathematical idea of the night sky or we can experience “a sensuous feeling of the infinite.”3 We can limit ourselves to only that which is rational and understandable or we can allow room for awe and intuition – “things that the mind cannot fully comprehend, but the heart can grasp.”4
In a similar vein, writer Richard Fisher says that “Feeling insignificant can be good for you.” Shortly after the death of his father he was driving in North Wales. At a scenic viewpoint he pulled off the road to gaze at nearby mountains. It was a wet, overcast day and peering out at the landscape, he traced the path of a water pipe from the valley floor, up the slope of a mountain, and rising up into the mist. Low hanging clouds shrouded the peak so he was left to his imagination. He pictured the slope continuing upwards indefinitely, never reaching a finite peak but carrying on and on. With his father’s death reminding him of his mortality, he felt overwhelmed. He said that it felt cathartic – almost fulfilling – to let his mind run up into the clouds, and to be reminded of how small he was.”5
He has had similar feelings staring at the ocean and the stars. He notes that “Encountering things far bigger than yourself can provoke feelings of awe and humility.”6
The James Webb Space Telescope is sending back astonishing photographs reminding us that the universe is far larger and more mysterious that we ever imagined. The pictures of infant stars in their early stages of formation dazzle and amaze.
The stories surrounding the birth of Jesus are intended to dazzle and amaze and evoke within us a sense of awe. The gospel writers Matthew and Luke were doing their best to communicate what had overwhelmed their faculties and their ability to articulate: That the Creator of this wondrous world was present in Jesus as no other.
They were trying to communicate that this humble birth signaled a burst of light, a surge of hope. This child would grow up to become a window into the heart of God. The birth of Jesus declared that God is not a distant deity who creates the world and then fades out of sight, but rather that God loves the world and is present in this sacred moment and always.
There was a time not too long ago when many put their hopes entirely in reason, science, and technology. These were the things that would cure the ills of our ailing planet. But with endless wars, cyber-attacks, terrorist strikes, glaciers melting, deadly viruses, ongoing racism – and that’s just the beginning – it is hard to imagine that anyone does not recognize the overwhelming need for hope in something far greater than ourselves.
That is why we are here tonight, why we have come out in the bitter cold, why we gather in this peaceful sanctuary. We long to hear angels’ voices, to see a guiding star and to peer into the manger. We want to be reminded of our deepest and truest hope that God is with us – each one of us – piercing the darkness with light and sparking within us a hope that will never be extinguished.
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