The Defining Power of Story

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The metaphor of a cocktail

For many of us the Christmas narrative blurs into a cocktail of images. The many images become mentally remixed into a generalized, yet heady potion of angels, a virginal young woman, a baby, shepherds and animals; a star, wise men, a genocidal monarch; and a huge cosmological vision of the Word – the communicative element of God- coming into the world as the light of all people, shedding light in the darkest of places.

This last reference to light triggers off another set of images flowing out of the great transgenerational vision of the prophets of Israel concerning the coming to a people who walked in darkness of a savior – the Messiah who will usher in a truly global vision of reconciliation and fulfillment.

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_MagiAs a cocktail of images we miss the importance of each ingredient in the cocktail. Staying with the cocktail metaphor for a further moment, each ingredient offers a different flavor to the event of the Incarnation. Incarnation is the word used to mark the event of enormous significance for Christians – that of the creator becoming part of the creation. Although all the major world faiths witness to the truth, only Christianity has this truth.

Each Gospel writer has his own particular take on this event – a take that emerges from the Evangelist’s cultural-historical location, which includes the needs of his intended audience. Both Luke and Matthew begin their Gospels with a Jesus birth narrative. Luke gives us the angel, virgin, shepherds and farmyard ingredients. Matthew gives us the star, wise men, and genocidal monarch ingredients. The focus in Luke’s story is the obedience of a young woman, whereas, Matthew’s focus is on Joseph and through him, Jesus’s messianic lineage. Luke’s is a cosmopolitan story designed to appeal to the 1st-century multinational world of the Roman Empire. Matthew’s is a story constructed for predominantly Jewish ears, a story firmly located within the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Matthew adds to the theme of Incarnation that of Epiphany recalling the arrival of the Wise Men. The readings the Episcopal Church chooses for the Second Sunday of Christmas more properly belong to the feast of the Epiphany, which always being the 6th of January, this year occurs on this coming Wednesday. Wednesday being a weekday, everyone accepts that most Episcopalians will not be in church, and hence the readings for the Second Sunday. We don’t want you to miss out on this installment of the Christmas story.

Epiphany – one of those infernal Greek words means showing. What is it that is being revealed? The Epiphany is like a spotlight being trained on the manger scene. In the illumination we see Jesus’ birth taking place against the deep backdrop of the Jewish religious tradition that Matthew speaks to. At the same time, in the arrival of the Wise Men, a contemporary English rendering of the Persian word Magi – magician, Matthew connects the birth of Jesus to both a wider ancient Middle Eastern Wisdom religious tradition, while at the same time, identifying Jesus as the New Moses.

Deep background

The Magi are figures from Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia. For instance, it’s from Zoroastrianism that angels and the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil, light and dark enter into Jewish religious thinking. The Magi journey from the East, literally the image for the dawning of each day’s new light, guided by the light of a star, a clear astrological-astronomical reference. In the ancient world astrology was the serious scientific study of the heavens in order to come to better understand the larger patterns within which human experience of the natural world unfolded and as such astrology is more than modern day horoscoping. It is the forerunner of modern astronomy. The implication here is that the birth of Jesus is more than a Jewish event, it’s also a Wisdom event and as such is appropriately recognized by the Gentile representatives of Wisdom inquiry.

Matthew weaves into the Magi narrative strand the signifiers of divine kingship – Gold, Frankincense, and Mir and a connection between the Magi and Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the ruler of Palestine, which at the time of Jesus’ birth is still a semi-autonomous vassal state of Rome; a client state not yet fully incorporated into the Empire. This narrative strand connecting Magi and Herod enables Matthew to set up the events of the Holy family’s flight into Egypt; a flight necessitated by Herod’s genocidal jealousy of another ‘king of the Jews’ born within his territory.

It’s easy to miss Matthew’s intent here. He is setting up the connection between Jesus and Moses. Moses too, was delivered from a king’s infanticidal rage as Pharaoh sought to kill all the young Israelite, male children. Jesus’ escape into Egypt also connects him to Israel’s story of deliverance, and through this to the Moses story.

A community’s story

The community I serve is going through some significant changes. Change is usually disruptive and unsettling though there are some who relish the novelty of something different. Although some may feel the changes taking place to be unnecessary, the result of a relatively new rector doing what new rectors do, I deeply appreciate that as a whole, my community is one that is ready for the next installment in its eventful and fruitful history.

How do I know this? I know my community is ready for change because it has said so. In our recent participation in a program called RenewalWorks we had a 120% participation rate in the online spiritual inventory survey. The results of the inventory revealed a startling fact. While my community is below even the Episcopal Church benchmarks for levels of belief and spiritual practice, we greatly exceeded the survey’s expected response rate, hence the odd 120%. I read this as an indication of the members of this community expressing their hunger to deepen and to grow in their faith journey.

An Episcopal parish attracts people who don’t want simple answers to complex questions. The Episcopal Church is increasingly a community of refugees. 40% of the members of my community are Protestant refugees. Some are escaping fundamentalist church experience, being attracted to theological tolerance. Others, from more mainline Protestant churches, are attracted to the rich and deep catholic liturgical worship of the Anglican Tradition. 30% are Roman Catholic refugees. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to discern the attraction of the Episcopal Church for Roman Catholics increasingly disaffected by the conservative shift and maintenance of attitudes of intolerance in their church that have typified the direction under two Popes preceding Francis. That leaves around 30% of my community as either cradle Episcopalian or spiritual seekers arriving from non-church backgrounds.

In our community, we have two main tasks. Firstly, to facilitate the diverse nature of our membership into an experience of belief and spiritual practice that meets complex needs. The one thing that unites us is the need for a belief structure and pattern of spiritual practice that supports us in meeting the challenges of living 21st-century lives. Connected to this is our second task, which is to become a more magnetic community, a magnet strange attractor for many who find themselves increasingly spiritually seeking. Our resource for both tasks are the accumulated wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition, permeated through Anglicanism’s aesthetic richness and theological tolerance.

Folk who are overly educated and formed by a predominant culture of secular inquiry bring complex needs to their search for faith. We bring a deep desire for the numinous, something we are barely able to articulate our need for, but which we are in search of in an attempt to escape from the existential restlessness and disillusionment of materialist culture. Yet, we need our faith to be credible to us. We have poor tolerance for the seeming miraculous enchantment of the Christmas story of angels, virgins, and extra-biological procreation.

For most of the members of my community the importance of the Christmas story lies not in any desire that it meet the needs of literal historicity, i.e. did it happen, and did it happen as described? In teasing-out the Christmas cocktail ingredients and in particular, those that Matthew’s narrative of the Incarnation provides, my aim is to highlight the formative nature of narrative for human awareness and the formation of Christian identity in particular.

Story is all we have

The branch of secular inquiry that I have been most schooled in is that of depth and transpersonal psychologies. There is considerable divergence between the two schools but on one thing they agree. We only ever have the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about one another, and about the nature of the world around us. Whatever objective reality we have access to, it is always permeated through the construction of a narrative that interprets experience in order to build meaning. Human beings, it might be said are story telling creatures. Far from being exercises in make-believe, stories give voice to experiential reality and the articulation of our meaningful experience of the world.

Individuals, groups, and societies develop identity through the stories they tell, or put more technically, the narratives they construct. Story or narrative builds a sense of meaning and purpose. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John tell different stories about the Incarnation, and each story arises out of their respective cultural and historical locations. Each story further defines the nature of their community’s experience. We have a great advantage in having their variations on the theme of Incarnation as part of our repertoire to draw from. While they differ they are nevertheless variations on the core story, which is that the creator has come at a point in time and space to become subject to the laws of time and space. Living within the limitations of human experience, Jesus reveals God’s fuller dream for human development. The central truth of the stories of the Incarnation is that to be human is to be most like God. This seems to be God truth, proclaimed in the first chapters of Genesis, now repeated more clearly in the life of Jesus.

Mark, Matthew, Luke and John tell different stories about the Incarnation. Each story arises out of their particular cultural and historical location. Each story continues to shape the nature of their community’s experience. We have a great advantage in having their variations on the theme of Incarnation as part of our repertoire to draw from. While they differ they are nevertheless variations on the core story, which is that the creator has come at a point in time and space to become subject to the laws of time and space. Living within the limitations of human experience, Jesus reveals God’s fuller dream for human development. The central truth of the stories of the Incarnation is that to be human is to be most like God. This seems to be God-truth, proclaimed in the first chapters of Genesis, now repeated more clearly in the life of Jesus.

We now live in the second decade of the 21st-century. Whether overtly religious or avowedly secular, the stories we tell ourselves have to a very great degree been shaped by the religious and cultural narrative of the Western religious tradition. The narratives of Incarnation lie at the heart of our religious tradition and tells us that whatever the world is or isn’t, however our picture of it is coloured or shaped, the world is not an illusion but a day-to-day reality to be engaged with. The spiritual-religious-theological truth we tell ourselves through the Incarnation narrative is that no matter how distorted and contorted our experience of being human might be, to be human is to be a reflection of what is most and essentially true about God.

The great story

I can’t finish without the obligatory reference to T.S. Elliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi. In it he muses on the close relationship between birth and death:

Birth or death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different…

The Epiphany spotlight on the Incarnation reveals the first chapter in a story of a birth that leads to death, one death in particular. Through that death God does something new – death henceforth leads us back to birth, new birth.

Story is all we have. The question is how we tell the story? What do we include and what do we leave out?  All our stories are cocktails created by what is added and what is left out of any particular telling. Through the way we tell our story, connections are forged between the wisdom of the past and future hopes constructing necessary meaning and purpose in the present. Our very lives are a narration, not just in words, but in actions. Through story in action we live out the spiritual insights of Incarnation. This is a story that renews our engagement with the world and leads us towards individual and communal transformation. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full, full of grace and truth. This informs us of the truth that the creator is now one with the creation. I invite us all to meditate on this and let it change us and through personal change transform our world.


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