The Starkness of Choice

Our current struggle in the information age – is on a daily basis to decide between multiple stories. These stories no longer present different interpretations of commonly accepted facts, but now present us with different sets facts. There are facts and there are now alternative facts. There is truth, it seems, and there is alternative truth. There are stories, it seems, and then there are other stories.

Yet, this has always been true – if expressed in less extreme and less incendiary ways. 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 are we? Why we are here? How do things come to be the way we experience them? 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. And herein- lies our current dilemma as a culture and as a nation. We no longer share agreed upon interpretations of events -events that shape our perceptions of who we are, why we are here, and how we came to be this way?

Christmas is a story about how God becomes known to us – not through timeless mystery – but within the flow of events that forms our shared human history. Even so – there have always been differing interpretations of how God entered into the flow of events in human history.

You see, there is, and has always been, more than one way to tell a story. I can tell my own life story as a story of a glass half full. Or I can reframe this story to take account of my actual experience of abundant grace and generosity – a story of a glass overflowing. This second way of telling makes the quality of my experience ever more fruitful. Between these two stories designed to explain my experience to myself, lies the area of personal choice. Which will I choose?

As we all have multiple stories from among which to make choices, so we discover that Christmas is not one story, but multiple stories.

Matthew’s birth of Jesus story is story about Jesus and Joseph and the fulfillment of Israel’s long dream of a new Moses. In Matthew it’s the kings of the earth who come to pay homage to Israel’s infant king. Like Moses, Matthew has Jesus taken down into Egypt, but not as prince but infant refugee in the company of his parents, who are in flight to protect the young boy-king’s life. In 2021, we easily identify with Matthew’s story of forced migration and flight to safety as the world is rocked by the largest global movement of peoples, now on course to exceed that in the aftermath of the Second World War. Choosing to believe in response to Matthew’s version of the story might help us to clarify what are the priorities for us in the current conflicting immigration debate. In Jesus, God enters into the experience of homelessness – in order to call our homelessness – home.

Luke’s birth story is about Jesus and Mary. In Mary, an adolescent girl, pregnant out of wedlock and scared out of her wits by the dangerous predicament she finds herself in becomes an image of courage born of vulnerability. On Advent 4, I wrote about how in 2021, Mary’s story evokes powerful resonances to the vulnerability of women – in the face of a ruthless patriarchy – that even today continues to control women and their reproductive bodies. Luke’s story is about the role we human beings play as the essential agents who collaborate with God’s dream of putting the world to rights. 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, those of us who are of little account in this world.

John’s story offers a completely different take on how God the creator enters within the experience of the creation. In John there are no birth facts – no Joseph, no Mary, no wise men, or shepherds, or angels. In contrast, John constructs a narrative in which Jesus’ entry into human experience is reframed as a new Genesis event  – harkening back to the very origins of the creation, itself.

John’s begins with: 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. Jesus is the Word -that is, God in the communicative action – radiating outwards through the energies of light and love. In Jesus, God as the Word 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. Because the world remains mired in the self-interests of the status quo. John’s story of how the Creator pours into and becomes one within the creation presents us with the stark outlines of choice. Will we, do we make the choice to believe – inspired by John’s story to become allied with God’s purposes in the Incarnation?

Each Evangelist constructs a story that makes sense of Jesus birth in the context of their own time and place. Each of these stories poses for us a challenge of particular choices, accepted or refused.

We modern Westerners are preoccupied with the question of truth. Is this version of event 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 not true for us. But the question – is this story true or not true is the wrong question because it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in relation to story. The real question is: what implications flow from believing or not believing in the incarnation story? We choose whether to find value or not in our 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 a set of tensions that do – tensions between safety and risk; between invulnerability and vulnerability; between collaboration and resistance; insiders or outsiders.

In its cosmic expansiveness, John’s narrative might better speak to those of us with science-fiction rich, post-modern imaginations in the way that Matthew and Luke’s enchanted birth stories once 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. Picture

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.

scrolling across the wide screen of a new Star Wars postquel epic.

I believe in the power of these gospel stories to change lives – because they change my life. I believe in these stories, not because I mistake them for literal descriptions of events, but because to not believe in them is to reject their implications for human living – to prefer lesser and more self-serving stories that impoverish and limit my imagination, cramping the space for creative living. I choose these stories to live by because they are large expansive stories that challenge the forces – both in me and in the world around me that resist and work against God’s healing of a broken human world.

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. Viewed in this way, the Christmas story might be worthy of our closer consideration?

A Christmas Blessing

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven 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 from John O’donohue A Morning Offering

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