Monday, December 24, 2012

Getting the Details Right

I am as guilty as the next person.  At this time of year, I love to decorate the house for Christmas, and one of the prized possessions on display is a lovely Nativity set.

Each year, I try to arrange the pieces in as natural a looking scene as possible.  And yet...and yet, deep down I know that I am not getting the details right.

Why? Because it simply didn't happen this way.  How can I say something so outrageous, especially at this time of year.  Because--I will tell you why.

When I was in college, I took a wonderful course in the Gospels from one of my all time favorite professors.  He taught us to read each Gospel carefully and in its own right.  When you do that, you will come to understand that each Gospel was written by a particular author for a particular purpose.  So, the details the writer was selecting were intended to deliver a very specific message.

So, the writers of Mark and John simply skip the Christmas story.  That's right.  Not one mention in either Gospel of any of the details we associate with this time of year.

That leaves Matthew and Luke.  What have we done with their accounts?  Well, we have mashed them together into one grand scheme, rather like a Hollywood production.  Cue the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary what is to come (Luke).  Cue Joseph planning to break the engagement because Mary is pregnant (Matthew).Cue Caesar Augustus sending out a decree to have "all the world registered" (Luke).  Cue Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem where she gives birth and places the baby in a manger (Luke).

So, who tells us about the shepherds?  (Luke)
The angels singing? (Luke)
How about the wise men visiting? (Matthew)
And what of Joseph and Mary journeying to Egypt because Herod plans to kill all the baby boys? (Matthew)

Do you begin to see the issue?  We have taken two separate accounts that do NOT duplicate details and have made of them one story.  And that story gives rise to the nativity scene.

So no where in the Gospel accounts do we ever have a grand scene with everyone coming to the stable.  And what about that stable?  Who tells us about that?  No one.  That too has been part of the presumption.  The brief cryptic statement in Luke's gospel is that the baby was laid in a manger "because there was no room in the inn."  Of course, our presumption is that an inn must have been like a motel, sort of the Bethlehem Marriott or some such.  One writer, however, suggests that what the statement may be referring to is that there was no room in the guest room.  Not quite as picturesque, is it?

In the process we tend to lose the reason that the account in Matthew focused on details such as the visit by the wise men.  And, where did the THREE wise men detail come from? Again, no where--except that there are three gifts mentioned.

We also lose the reason that the account from Luke focused on lowly shepherds.

Oh, I will keep my nativity.  But I won't assume that the story that is being told is one grand continuous uninterrupted narrative.  Because it isn't. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


We are overwhelmed with the incredibly sad news of the events on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. 

One of the most wrenching details for me was about the way frantic parents had gathered awaiting news of their children.  One by one, children and parents were reunited, until—finally—there was only a handful of parents remaining.  While there was a protocol that was to be followed, apparently the governor of Connecticut thought that prolonging those parents’ agony was simply cruel, so he straightforwardly told them—if your child isn’t with you, they aren’t coming home.
Some people have criticized the governor for being so blunt.  But, his approach was the right one.

I don’t know if you have ever been in a situation where you have to be the one to tell the bad news.  I have. 
Many years ago, my father-in-law suffered a catastrophic health event, a dissecting aortic aneurysm.  He was rushed to the local hospital, and family members were quickly summoned.  We all gathered in the critical care unit awaiting news of his status as he underwent diagnostic tests.  During that time, the assembled family decided that someone needed to travel to his home town and be with his elderly mother.  That lot fell to me.

When I reached the home, I tried to comfort Grandma as best I could.  My father-in-law was her eldest child and very much a mainstay for her.  Suddenly, the phone rang.  When I answered, it was my husband calling to inform me that his father had not pulled through, and had died even before he could be operated on.  Something in my tone of voice tipped Grandma off—and, even though “the plan” was to wait until the pastor arrived to tell her, she demanded: Is he dead?

I had a choice—I could have postponed responding, temporizing and delaying the news until the pastor arrived, or I could answer her straightforwardly and honestly.  I chose the latter.

I replied simply: Yes, Grandma, he’s gone.  Immediately she began wailing and rocking back and forth.  After a bit, as I held her, she calmed down a bit.  I read some of the Psalms to her as she quieted.  Of course, my immediate telling in no way lessened her grief, but it gave her immediate information instead of making her stay in a suspended state, fearing and guessing the worst all the while hoping against hope it wasn’t true.

Of course, I don’t know if Governor Malloy was going through a similar calculus, but his decision to tell immediately was a small kindness in the midst of horrific grief. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


This is a season of waiting.

The church of my childhood was not one to observe the liturgical year.  So, it was with some puzzlement that I slowly adapted to the concept of seasons of the church year--including Advent.  For years, our church has eschewed singing most Christmas carols in services until Christmas Eve.  And for years, I have chafed at this restriction.

I had conversations--not arguments--with our pastor (who is also a friend, and who recently retired) about the available carols that could be sung without breaking that Advent message.  And sometimes we might even sing on of those carols--for example "Once in Royal David's City."

But still, our services during Advent continue to draw on the repertoire of Advent hymns--most of which are in a minor key, and are usually sung in unison.  I guess to appreciate the import of that last description, you need to know that I am an alto, through and through, and I love--make that LOVE--to sing in four part harmony.

"O Come, O Come, Emanuel" or "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night" just doesn't put me in a Christmas spirit.

And then, last Sunday, our new pastor gave new meaning to me that helps me understand and even appreciate Advent.  He said:
"The work of these weeks before Christmas, then, this time that the church calls Advent, this season of pregnant hope and possibility, is not so much to prepare for the birth of the baby that happened long ago but to welcome the Christ in us in ever deepening ways. It is a time to get the nursery of our hearts and the manger of our minds ready to engage the ministry of Christ in us more completely and creatively than ever before."

Suddenly, it clicked--and I finally get it. 

When we focus on Christmas--on the birth of a baby--we forget that what preceded that birth was nine months of being pregnant.  Nine months is a long time.  Oh, certainly, it can pass by quickly, but when you are waiting for that nine months to go by, it can be a long time.

A long time for the expectant mother and father.  A long time for family members--grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and all manner of cousins.  All waiting.  Waiting for one singular day.  Waiting for a birth.

And so, I now understand Advent in a way I had not understood it previously.  So, thank you to our new pastor for giving me insight.

And thank you to our daughter and son-in-law for giving us a very personal example.  Only a few more days--as we all wait.