Vignettes of faith
Vignette #1: Friends on Facebook may by now be getting tired of seeing a particular post. A former student, now a good friend, recalls a quote of mine from a class about 20 years ago. She posts this every year in early December: “I don’t care what part of the world you’re in, no shepherd ever watched over a flock by night in the dead of winter.” As I recall, I was making a point about the date of Jesus’ birth being uncertain and showing that traditions that have grown up around it are not all consistent. “Whatever!”
Vignette #2: Driving up into the mountains of northern Italy one magical summer, I passed the town of Trent. That is where the Roman Catholic bishops in the mid-16th century hammered out their response to the Protestant Reformation. It carries the air of Christian history in a way only a few other places can. I looked around at green mountains, lush farmland, racing rivers – and I marveled. Christianity tells of a nearly solitary Jewish teacher on the edge of the eastern Mediterranean desert. How could it have taken hold and spoken profoundly to people here?
Vignette #3: “O Holy Night!” is one of the most lyrical carols to grace the Christmas season. It includes the line, “long lay the world in sin and error pining till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” What? Was God doing nothing in all those millennia before Jesus came? What about the voices of prophets, the assurances of priests, and the words that were received as God’s revelation from Mt. Sinai? Were they all just deceptions, or mistakes?
Each of these vignettes shows how the Christmas story puts on the “clothing” of the culture in which it is told. In a classroom, it becomes an intellectual challenge that we can explore. In mountainous Italy, faith makes the story understandable even though the barren scenes in the Bible are nowhere to be found in the region. When poetry and song rise to hail the amazing grace of God, they form a glorious robe, adorned with Christ, that hides the necessary foundations in creation and in Israel, which lie under that robe.
This is what it means that the word of God becomes flesh and lives among us (John 1:14). There is no “generic“ when it comes to God’s word; it is either specific and relevant to our lives, or it isn’t God’s word for us. And yet, a word that doesn’t touch me may still be God’s word for someone else. Their life, their context, their experience of God can be different. In fact, they almost certainly are. And that means that their story, their perspective, can actually enrich my own understanding of faith. We need not squabble over whose story is more true; we may even come to share a new view of faith in the process. The truth within the stories that speak to each of us is the truth that God loves this world and always wants us to live together in it as God’s people.
I don’t remember where I learned that shepherds don’t watch their flocks at night in the winter. I do know that the little nugget of information now forms part of the story I share with my student-friend, and it marks our Advent preparation for the Word in a holy way.