Increasingly, I have come to understand that stories are all we have and that human beings create meaning from the stories they construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.
Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together, as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.
The demands of daily life distract us from an awareness of being shaped by the stories we tell. Gaining a little perspective on our stories allows the swirling snowstorm of ideas and feelings that like in a shaken snow globe, to settle. Gaining perspective allows us to perceive our lives viewed through the rearview mirror, revealing the hidden dissonances between the life actually lived and the stories we continue to tell ourselves about that life.
For instance, I am temperamentally a half glass full kind of guy -that all I can expect in life is that my glass will be half full is a story I have constructed to protect myself against the experience of disappointment. But when I look at my life in rearview mirror sight, I spot the variance between the pessimistic story I tell myself and actual life experience. I note that my actual experience has invariably been one of a glass filled and at times overflowing with the abundance of grace; an experience of life, filtered through my predominant half glass full story, obscures from me.
This is a reflection on the Christmas event and I guess many of you may be asking where is he going with all of this? Where I want to go with this is in the direction of identifying the Christmas event in terms of being a story that opens us to the invisible geography that invites new frontiers; a story through which to glimpse the possibility of a deeper and richer experience in life.
Christmas is a historical story. God becomes known not through timeless mystery but in time and space – through the events of our communal and personal histories – events remembered and recorded as story. There is always more than one way to tell a story. I can live my life under the influence of a story of life as a glass half full, or I can reframe this story to take account of my actual experience of abundant grace and gratuitous gift. This results in the emergence of a new story that redirects me towards beckoning new meaning into my life. We all have multiple stories from among which to make choices. Christmas is a story. Actually, Christmas is multiple stories.
Matthew places the birth of Jesus within the transgenerational epic of Israel’s history. Matthew’s Jesus is a new Moses – the long-awaited fulfillment of Israel’s longing. It’s to Joseph, as the direct descendant of David that the angel brings the good news. It is to the child messiah that the wise kings of the earth come to worship as an expansion of Israel’s story to now enfold them. It’s to Egypt that the Holy family must flee – an allusion to Israel’s flight into Egypt.
Luke’s story differently locates the birth of Jesus, placing it against the backdrop of a Roman-dominated world and specifically within the context of the imperial census. In Luke’s story, it is to a young woman Mary, an image of courage born of vulnerability, to whom the angel speaks. Luke’s Jesus is a universal savior, born in utter obscurity, witnessed not by kings but by illiterate peasant shepherds and field hands. Luke’s Jesus is born among the outcast and excluded of this world.
John’s story offers a further take on the birth of Jesus. There is no Joseph, no Mary, no wise men, and no shepherds or angels. In contrast, John constructs a narrative in which Jesus’ birth is reframed as a new Genesis event – that harkens back to the very origins of the creation, itself.
John’s opening words are: In the beginning —–. In the beginning, when God created the heaven and earth, the Word already was. Logos, translated in English as Word, points to the action of God in creation. The Word is God in action – communicating outwards through the energies of light and love. This active aspect of the divine has now acted again and entered the heart of the creation in a human form. In the birth of Jesus, God self-reveals in the contours of a human face and in the unfolding events of a human life.
From his opening words, John quickly sketches out his plot line. God’s self-giving as the Word, has come into the world, but the world is not ready for this and fails to recognize what God is doing. The world may remain blind, yet for those who believe new and unforeseen possibilities open up for them.
Each Evangelist constructs a story that makes sense of Jesus birth in the context of their time and place. Each story encompasses the particular choices that can be made or refused – and the consequences for lives lived that flow from the exercise of positive or negative choices.
We choose our stories. The modern and post-modern mindset likes to know if something is true or not. We tend to treat the birth narratives in the Gospels as fairy stories, which for many of us places them in the not true category and consequently of no value to us. But the question – is this true or not true is the wrong question because it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in relation to such stories. The real questions are – what implications flow from believing or not believing? What happens to our experience in life if we either live as if these stories convey something meaningful to us, or reject them? Essentially, these are questions about choice. It’s a choice whether to find value or not these large faith stories.
The choice of story is always ours. The enchanted magical-realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie the balance between safety verses risk in the way we live; courage and strength found in the tension between invulnerability or vulnerability; who do we consider in or out and are we insiders or outsiders?
In its cosmic expansiveness, John’s narrative might better speak to us in an age when science fiction functions for the post-modern imagination as once Matthew and Luke’s enchanted birth stories functioned for the pre-modern mindset. For me, John’s more cosmic and expansive reframing of the Creator’s entry into the heart of the creation fits better with my sci-fi – Quantum field influenced imagination. I could easily imagine the words of Johns prologue projected across an opening scene in a new Star Wars epic –
in the beginning, was the Word, the Word was with God ….. the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it ….. and Word became flesh and lived among us …..and we have seen his glory …..God’s only son full of grace and truth.
We are not only victims of our own self-limiting life stories we are also vulnerable to some very pernicious cultural-collective stories that claim us in ways we may not always be comfortable with. Materialism is one of our pervasive cultural stories of our time and it makes us more and more anxious. We live out personal and social stories that promote the illusion that our pursuit of more and more things or a better more glossy experience will plug the emptiness inside us. Our drive for more and more success, more and more power, and more and more attractiveness delivers less and less of that for which our hearts yearn. Satiation is often the illusion we mistake for satisfaction.
I believe in the power of these gospel stories to change lives. I believe in these stories, not because I mistake them for literal descriptions of true events, but because to not believe in their message impoverishes and limits me. The question is how is my life enriched through allowing the priorities of these stories to shape my sense of self and the world around me? Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting life story. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have -maybe such stories are worthy of our closer consideration?
May the stories we choose to live by – enlivening us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.
(My paraphrasing of O’Donohue’s last stanzas from A Morning Offering.)
 Words taken from John O’Donohue’s poem A Morning Offering.