CHRISTMAS EVE ALIVE!
I live in Black Mountain.
Every day I come to St. John’s
by traveling west on Highway 70/Tunnel Road.
I pass the Ingles warehouse,
the VA hospital and Sonic drive in.
Then when I come up the hill I turn onto Beverly Road
at Groce Methodist Church.
Groce is a fine church.
We share the Welcome Table Ministry with them.
Their Senior Minister Gerald Davis
is a kind-hearted man
and a fine pastor.
Last week as I left the Saturday evening Eucharist
here at St. John’s--
it was about 6:30 PM--
I was at the stoplight on Beverly Road,
waiting to make my left turn onto Tunnel Road
and head back home towards Black Mountain.
Groce has had this large plywood nativity scene
in front of the church for quite a few weeks now.
In fact, the nativity scene went up
about the time their Pumpkin Patch came down.
I like their nativity scene.
I have seen it every day
and have thought on more than one ocassion
that it was nicely done,
if they had an artist in their congregation
who created this nativity scene.
Last Saturday evening
I am waiting at the stoplight
and I glance over at the nativity scene--
The figures are alive!!
I blinked and shook my head
“Help me, Jesus!
I am seeing things!!”
and then I realized,
the plywood figures
had been replaced my real living people
who were acting out the scene.
I may have sat through several lights.
I don’t know.
No one was behind me honking
and I was absolutely entranced.
I watched as a shepherd
and knelt down next to the manger.
I know that Groce is not the first church
to ever do a living nativity,
but I have to tell you,
this was the first time
I ever felt so moved by it.
It reminded me
that this scene from long long ago
is not just out of a storybook--
this is a story that happened.
It may not have happened
just as we portray it in Christmas carols
and picture books,
but the truth is--
well, the truth is
this story is true.
Things can be true without being factual.
(and I can only speak from this point of view
since it is the only one I have)--
we Americans are obsessed with facts.
We like information.
Even trivial information.
We are Wikipedia addicts.
Wikipedia has 326 million users a month.
People looking for facts.
We don’t want anybody pulling the wool over our eyes.
For those of us old enough
to remember the old television program DRAGNET,
we remember Capt. Joe Friday’s line,
“Just the facts, Maam.”
“Just the facts” may be very helpful
for a detective trying to solve a crime mystery,
but “just the facts” is not very helpful
when we are pondering
how the birth of Jesus intersects and affects our own life,
when we are pondering the depths of holy Mystery,
There was an interesting article
in the recent issue of THE WEEK magazine
(Volume 12 issue 588-589, page 11):
It was about the facts--and the discrepancies-- around the first Noel.
It is more likely that Jesus was born around 5 or 6 B.C.
We think that because historical and biblical references tell us
Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great--
well, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.
So Jesus was most likely born 1 or 2 years prior to his death.
Everyone does seem to agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem--
so we can say that is a fact.
Most likely a date picked by the Church in the 4th century
to co-opt a pagan feast day.
Scholars think that Jesus was probably born in the summer
because of the star that is mentioned.
Astronomer John Moseley of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles
recently suggested that
the Star of Bethlehem was actually a convergence
of Jupiter and Venus that took place on June 17 in 2 BC.
“The two planets had merged into one single gleaming object
in the direction of Jerusalem as seen in Persia.”
The wise men--who certainly could have been Persian--
all we know is that they came from the East--
see this star and follow.
It is factual that people-- “magi”--
sought guidance from the stars. Some people still do.
Plus there is a reliable 8th century text that offers an account
from the magi’s point of view of their travel to Bethlehem
following a star.
Our tradition and our hymns tell us that Jesus was born in a stable,
because there was no room in the inn.
This is probably a result of a mis-translation of a Greek word--
which was translated in the King James Bible as “inn”
but a more accurate translation would be “a spare room”.
So if no one had a spare room
to offer Mary and Joseph and the soon-to-be-born Jesus,
what they were most likely offered--and where Jesus was born--
was the first floor of a lowly peasant house--
and yes, if this were the case, there were animals there .
People at that time did not have separate barns or outbuildings
for their animals--they brought them into their house--
into the ground floor level , at night.
The animals lived downstairs, the people lived upstairs.
Every one seems to be in agreement
that Mary placed the newborn baby in a manger, a feed trough.
When Jesus was born
Augustus Caesar, way off in Rome, was at the height of his power.
Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar.
After a bloody civil war Augustus established himself as the head.
As a god really.
First, he established his father as a god
and thus, he then often referred to himself as the ‘son of god.’
Augustus saw himself as the king, the lord.
Does this language sound familiar?
Even though they were alive at the same time, Augustus never met Jesus.
There was no Facebook, no twitter, no CNN,
no leaving on a jet plane.
But it did not take too long
for those who came after Augustus
to hear about this Jesus and his followers.
And they did not like what they were hearing.
This Jesus was born far away to the East,
born in poverty--
yet people were saying that Jesus was the true son of God,
the real king?
This did not sit well with those in power
and in the generation that followed Augustus
they set out to do everything they could
to annihilate all followers of Jesus.
The birth of Jesus is the beginning of a war between the kingdom of God
and the kingdoms of the world.
This war is still raging.
That is a fact.
However, within three centuries after Jesus’ birth,
the Emperor himself, Constantine,
converts to Christianity.
Okay, let’s be honest--
this conversion was likely not as much for spiritual reasons
as for political ones
(not to mention making his mother happy)
but Christianity suddenly shifts
from being revolutionary
and punishable by death
to being the approved norm.
The verdict is still out
as to whether making Christianity “mainstream”
was good news or bad news.
But it is a fact.
So you see there are plenty of facts
there are plenty of discrepancies as well.
But remember--what we know from the gospels
is not intended to be a complete historical narrative.
The word “gospel” means “good news”--
the writers of the gospels were sharing good news,
news they were excited about,
news that made their hearts race with joy and excitement,
events and people that had changed everything for them.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds--
were living, breathing human beings.
What exactly happened that night--
this night we call Christmas Eve--
we do not know.
But something happened that changed the world
and continues to change not only the world,
Each of us
who is willing to take this story
into our hearts
is changed, transformed.
Sometimes there is a truth that is greater
than any collection of facts.
Sometimes even the most skeptical
have been surprised by how the Spirit moves
in the mess and muddle of everyday life.
We can look at the story as two-dimensional plywood cut-outs.
We can obsess about the factual.
But we just might miss the deeper truth.
We can stand in the skeptics corner
but I will tell you--from my own personal experience--
baby, it’s cold over there.
As Joan Chittister writes:
There is a child in each of us waiting to be born again....Christmas is not for children. It is for those who refuse to give up and grow old...for those who can let yesterday go so that life can be full of new possibility always...for those in whom Christmas is a feast without finish...
(from Joan Chittister's book IN SEARCH OF BELIEF)
The call is to keep our eyes open this Christmas Eve
and all the eves that follow.
Because we might see something move,
come to life,
capture our hearts.
We might find ourselves falling in love--
for the first time--
or for the four-hundredth time--
with a baby whose name is Jesus.
We may not have all the facts
but we may discover
that following a star
is the journey our hearts truly long to travel.