Every now and then at Christmas something happens in my family, and probably in yours as well, that I have a sense will become a family story, told over and over again. It might be a sweet or funny or sad or even aggravating, but I feel sure it won’t be forgotten. We remember the time the middle child hid the donkey from our manger scene behind the videocassettes, or the year I had the flu and had to go back to bed while the children played with their toys, or the year it snowed so hard on Christmas Day we gave up on going to the cousins for Christmas dinner and came back home even though all we had on hand was the brownie trifle we were bringing to the party.
And speaking of Christmas desserts, on this Christmas Eve morning, I was standing by the counter at the market just down the street from the church I serve, waiting to pay for my Christmas turkey, when I saw them. There were mince pies, and blueberry pies, and right there in the front, an apple pie. My husband loves apple pie, and so do my sons, so I thought about buying it. But I had given dessert as an assignment to our Christmas dinner guest. And because this is a modern-day family story I am telling you, I hope it won’t be too shocking to hear that the guest was my former husband, the father of my children.
Because I know the preferences of the family, I had suggested two possibilities for Christmas dessert: apple pie or cheesecake. I was that explicit. But standing there with pies in front of me, I decided to call him. He answered his phone and I inquired, "Did you decide to get apple pie or cheesecake?” “Pie,” he said, and I pressed further, saying, “Because I’m standing here right in front of an apple pie.
There was a pause.
"So I shouldn’t get it?"
“I got pie,” he said.
And so I left without it, trusting there would be apple pie on the table for Christmas dessert.
On the radio the other day I heard another story, this one about Romeo and Juliet. A fellow decided to stage a production of Romeo and Juliet using only other people’s memories of the plot and the dialogue. He interviewed all sorts of people and pieced together their stories, even their digressions to topics as seemingly unrelated as Anna Nicole Smith. He never made reference to the actual play, never checked on Shakespeare’s words at all. He trusted people’s memories, or their mis-rememberings.
Every Christmas we tend to do the same thing in our re-telling of the gospel story. We have four gospel "birth" stories that somehow we make into a whole. If we look at them closely, we may be surprised to find out there are only two about a baby. We may forget from year to year which parts come from Luke or Matthew. Luke has Mary pondering things in her heart when the shepherds find her with the baby in the manger. Matthew has people being warned in dreams and King Herod and the magi. If we read the beginning of Mark, we find we’re right there with the grown-up Jesus being baptized.
And then there’s John, who brings us long strings of words about THE WORD, and no real story about a person at all, not just yet.
When my former husband arrived on Christmas Day, he carried a pie box. He told us where he got it, that he had called the local bread bakery and asked if they would have pie and been denied, but had stopped by just in case. He was pleased to say they did in fact have pie! And here he was, carrying that pie in a lovely white box, proudly declaring it to be…cranberry-raspberry.
This rang wrong, as you might imagine. Didn’t he tell me he had gotten an apple pie? I questioned him, nicely, “Oh, I thought you said apple pie,” and he answered, also nicely, “I never said apple. I said it was a FRUIT pie.”
Perhaps the important thing to remember about a family Christmas story is that we all tell our stories differently.
Some remember details—it was the year my niece wore high-top Converse sneakers with a red chiffon dress, the year a little angel "flew" off the platform during the Christmas pageant instead of walking down the stairs, the year the fog made it hard to get to church.
Some remember feelings–the mood at the family party, the tear in Papa’s eye when he heard his grandchildren singing and playing their instruments, the jolly atmosphere when we chuckled at the recitation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Some strive to put things into broader context—it happened the year of the attempted bombing on the airplane, when the Senate was in session on Christmas Eve to vote on Health Care, when Quirinius was governor in Syria.
And others, like the author of John, try to tell us what it all means, without reference to wise men or shepherds or stars or pondering mothers.
The story of Jesus coming into the world is our family story, the story common to all Christian people around the world. I’ve heard people use these first chapters of the gospels to make the argument that our scriptures are inconsistent, because they don’t match each other exactly. But I suspect our ancestors in faith knew what they were doing when they chose the books that would create the Bible. I suspect they allowed the Spirit to guide them in the process. I suspect they knew we needed stories and images and a little bit of history and a lot of imagination and some getting-right-to-the point in order to understand the fullness of God’s love for us.
And I suspect they knew some of us would need a little philosophical meandering around the idea of God becoming flesh and some deeper connection to the story of Creation, some reminder that God made us and continues to be part of us no matter how far away we are from the beginning.
After Christmas dinner, my 9th grader said, “Mom, you and dad are not telling the same story about the pie.” She helped me piece together the “real” pie story. It seems we tell our stories differently. I heard “I got pie” and assumed apple; he said “I got pie” and believed the sort of fruit to matter less than the difference between pie and cheesecake. Does it matter? On
ly if we let it cause an argument.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It’s not a story of the birth exactly. It’s not a version of the story we can put into little figures we arrange around a manger. It’s not a version of the story we can illustrate for a children’s book. It’s not a version of the story we can turn into a carol of many verses, no three kings and their different gifts, no shepherds with their flocks by night.
It’s really a story of conception, of what came before. And we found a way to sing it in one of our familiar Christmas carols this morning:
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
It’s the heart of this family story, whichever version we prefer to tell, or however we mix them up together. It’s the story most important to remember, the story of a God before and beyond time and place, Creator of all that is from the snow falling at my house to the frost you've seen on the ground this weekend, as removed from us as we can possibly imagine, choosing to come closer. God, out of love for us, took human form. God, out of a desire to mend a broken relationship with humanity, became one of us. God, out of hope beyond all reason, came into the world as a baby, vulnerable and trusting and dependent on others, fully divine yet fully human.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Thanks be to God.