24 December 2013

Ἐγένετο: it happened.

Adoration, by Brian Kershisnik

Ἐγένετο: it happened. 

That’s how stories begin: Once upon a time, In the beginning, In the days when wishing could make it so. But this storyteller can pin his story to the days of Caesar Augustus. This is not courtroom evidence: this is a story, and we are a people hungry for stories.  For some of us this story is braided into our own story.  We claim its lights for our candles and trees, and we add our own elements  -- our crèche has a Venetian lion, an Egyptian camel, an evzone, a Massachusetts sheep.  We tell it in ways that make sense to our own lives -- this is a family who, if travelling this year, could not get from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the barrier.  They might be thought homeless, but my mother, the obstetrician, said, "Thank heavens that there was no room in the inn.  They had clean straw and privacy and quiet in the stable."
Καὶ ποιμένες ἧσαν ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ: And there were shepherds in the fields.  

The people whom the angels choose to tell about the baby were laborers with dirty hands smelling of sheep, ritually unclean, cold.  They were in the fields because they were watching for birth.  The last few days before lambing, the ewes are too heavy to walk back to the sheepfold, so the shepherds sit out to protect them until they can give birth to the lambs to be sacrificed for the coming Passover. This storyteller has a fine sense for plot.

Over the years this story became braided together with an older story which begins:

Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν: The birth of Jesus Christ was like this. 

He pins the story to the rule of Herod.  He is writing for Jews, for whom Herod was of loathsome memory, while the first writer is writing for people who possibly wouldn't know Herod, but who wouldn't know of Augustus?

ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμνα: you see, magoi from the East came to Jerusalem. 

Scholars who studied the night sky and methodically recorded their observations. They were awake at night, looking for light, and they saw a light that told them of a new king. They left to pay homage.  They could afford to be away for a long time, cross international borders, bribe customs' officials, pay for any shelter available, and they knew they would be received at the courts of kings.

The brephos (newborn) of the first writer had become a paidion (young child) when they arrived, and the family was living in a house.  He was old enough to be delighted with the shiny things the magoi had in their treasure chests, thesaurous.  We are only told about gold, frankincense (libanon, livani), and myrrh, but there was a great deal of value in amounts small enough to fit under the seat on the flight to Egypt.

We braid these stories with ours.  When I was young, a neighbor's younger daughter was to draw for her Sunday School class a picture of some part of this story.  She drew four people on an airplane, and explained, "This is the flight to Egypt, with Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Pontius the pilot."   Near the same time, my younger brother was to draw for the same class a picture of his favorite Bible verse.  He drew a person followed by two dogs: " It's the twenty-third Psalm, and this is Surely-Goodness and Mercy following me."

Did you notice that both groups of people who saw amazing light in the night were not out finding themselves?  They were not on retreats getting in touch with their spiritual side.  They were not doing a twenty-four hour cleanse. They were not in worship services.  They were at work.  They were doing their jobs, but jobs with the distinctive characteristic of isolation from the usual daily noise and interruptions. 

Another element in the story, one we try to work around.  The massacre.  What in God's name did Mary say when in later years she encountered one of the mothers of those dead children? There have been a lot of massacres of small children, and painters from Giotto on give evidence in their paintings that they had seen these brutalized bodies.

We braid these stories with ours.  Some years ago my daughter and I were watching a cycle of English medieval mystery plays, presented on four stages around the village green in Marlboro. I tend to truly believe what I am watching, and when the soldiers began searching for the children, I was shaking with horror and weeping.  Then a slender girl with a baby in her arms tapped me, "Excuse me," trying to get by, and before I could react a soldier had snatched the baby from her.

This part of the story is unbearable.  But many find the light equally unbearable.  

Whatever interpretation you want to give or decline, the story is about a baby.  About the joy surrounding a birth, and the spontaneous outpouring of generosity.  Many of us have had babies.  We have seen our newborn surrounded by radiance.  None of us would find it inappropriate -- surprising, perhaps -- for angels to sing, or for strangers to bring expensive gifts.  

May you be surprised by the time, by joy, by light.

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