This is how the story of what happened 24 years ago was told to me.
It was the early morning that my nephew Andrew was born. My mother, his soon to be grandmother, had a dream which awakened her with a start. In her dream she found herself back teaching 3rd grade when she walked into the school’s office where a phone message was waiting. Someone named “Avery” had called. She knew instantly that it was her dad, who had been long deceased by then. He had called to tell her that the baby had been born. He thought she would want to go. Wide awake, she rushed downstairs to pick up the phone to return his call. By the time her foot reached the bottom step, she knew that was not possible, so she settled in to her recliner with the portable phone by her side. Within the hour, the phone rang. My sister, Sarah, was calling to share the exact same news.
And oh, how I remember the wonder of the birth days of each and every one. The joy. The deep gratitude that all was well. The clearing of the calendar so as to get there as soon as humanly possible. The first time I held each and every one of them in my arms.
And if this is so in so many of our families — whether the birth is ‘announced’ in an actual dream itself as Andrew was (as Jesus was), or is ‘just’ an answer to long held hopes and dreams…If it is so countless times every single day among us now that the newest among us is greeted with unparalleled wonder at least until the next one is announced and welcomed, then we get at least a glimmer of what it must have been that first Christmas, that first Epiphany so long ago.
But this one…
- This birth which was announced in dreams and an answer to the hope of centuries…
- This new life pointed to by the heavens themselves…
- This one which prompted the far distant travels not of anxious loved ones, but of hope filled dignitaries bearing gifts…
- This one which had a tyrant quaking and soldiers mobilized…
- And in the wake of another dream, had those dignitaries taking another way home…
If a birth in any one of our families can fill us with such wonder, such hope, then oh, what are we to do with this one?
Oh, it makes all the difference, of course, that we know where the story ends. It helps beyond measure that the symbolism of the gifts those wise men bore doesn’t have to be explained to us, for we know the divinity of that new born babe (frankincense), we recognize that he represented a different kind of royalty (gold), and yes we know so well that he was destined to die a most unusual death (myrrh). Yes, it makes a world of difference that we know where the story goes from here.
Even so, what might it mean to stand still in the story before us now?
- What might it look like to travel along with the wise men with their eyes trained on a star — trying to fathom what they are seeing, why they are following?
- And even before that, what might we hear if we dropped in on their conversations with advisers and loved ones as they prepared for this arduous journey to a far away country?
- And what must they have sensed when they stopped for directions (or to pay respects?) to King Herod on their way to Bethlehem?
- What might we see as we look at the faces of Mary and Joseph as they welcomed these exotic visitors from so far away? Would they have known even then that this birth was more wondrous than even they had imagined? Would they have been surprised at the gifts offered their still young child?
- And oh, what would it have meant for us to feel the tremors in the earth beneath our feet to know that Herod had his sites on this beloved child and that countless others would suffer and die as a result?
Can we let ourselves journey there even now?
Can we remember the wonder we felt the first or the last time we welcomed beloved new life into the world and magnify that hope over again more times than we can count?
Can we recognize that God works wonders in unexpected, out of the way places and in unexpected, often unassuming people?
Can we do all we can to protect God’s precious gift of human life in whatever way we can with all that we have for as long as we can — even as those wise men did by simply sidestepping the tyrant who would destroy this precious one?
Can we see that this story which seems so ancient, really is not so ancient at all, but that it plays out among us every day?
And oh, can we train our hearts, our minds to recognize that this is so by spending time as the wise men did? Can we fix our hearts on hope and stand still in those places where such hope still takes us even if it is little Bethlehem — or the waiting room at the county jail — or the corner room at the local rehabilitation hospital — or the line at the food pantry — or the back door of a lonely neighbor?
For while this story tends to get ‘stuck in memory,’ captured as it is over and over and over and over again in lifeless figures in creches in our churches and homes and museums, it does not belong only there.
For God is still working. For yes, dreams do still come. And new ones are welcomed with hope and wonder. And meanwhile, tyrants still rage. And the story continues. And it is ours, yours and mine, it seems to me, to enter the story once more and again and again. And again.
To keep listening to our dreams.
To keep our eyes and our hearts peeled for signs of hope and to follow where it leads.
Indeed, to make the journey.
And to bear the gifts.
And yes, to protect the innocent wherever, however we can.
For the story continues…