I recognize that, theoretically speaking, there isn’t anything that is more special about tonight than any other night. so. there.
At least December 21st, the winter solstice, has some astronomical significance. But there is nothing about the sun, moon and stars that seem to put Christmas Eve, Dec 24th on the “Big Deal” calendar. Historically speaking, it was Emperor Julius that declared December 25th the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but actually the calendar itself has changed since then. In fact, in Russia, the orthodox church still celebrates Christmas on January 7th (which would be December 25th in Julian’s Calendar.) And even if you’re looking for the actual feast day for Saint Nicholas, the day when children used to put their shoes out in hopes of getting gifts, look to December 6th in western countries, not, “Christmas.”
So, again, there is nothing officially magical about this particular night. If you think about it, it is just a night on which Christians continue to tell a part of a very elongated story about the life of Christ that takes up some part of every season of every year. And they do it over, and over and over and over again. So, there you have it. It is not a magical night. …Unless, of course, you believe, as I do, that telling stories changes everything…
I come from a family of story tellers, and in fact, very different kinds of story tellers. Specifically, the Mears family were known for telling “Fish Stories,” i.e. stories in which the size of the fish that was caught and yet got away gets bigger with every telling of the story. I remember clearly Mears wives dragging their husbands hands much closer together to represent the size of the fish the almost caught… but didn’t
But I have also heard my fair share of what I call, “Fly stories.” A fly story is the opposite of a “Fish story.” Instead of an exaggerated story it is when someone is kinda forced to talk about how something great happened in their lives, but they always seem to describe themselves as a fly on the wall when it is happening.
I once sat down with Elizabeth Cole, a woman, and a wildly gifted nurse, who lived in the 1940’s’s when she was in her 30’s and, as an unmarried woman, hopped a cruise ship to Africa with a plan to start a facility for people suffering from Hansen’s disease, Leprosy. (Check those dates. No one did such an outrageous thing at the time.) She did. She showed up and asked for some land, and someone gave it to her. Later she asked for a hospital, and someone built it for her. She set up shop in a village of people who had been sent away from their home villages. It was known as the village of the “thrown away people.” Eventually, however, it was known as, (and officially changed their name to changed their name to) “God’s chosen people.” Well done Ms. Cole! …unmarried, in your 30’s…in the 40’s. That’s not a thing women really did back then right? OK. You prove me wrong. Well. Done.
But if you want more details, you will be hard pressed to find them from her, not because of the unlikelihood of her adventures being true, but because she always
told her stories as “Fly Stories,” slightly diminished with a huge shift in focus. “Weren’t you honored by the Queen of England for your work in Africa?” I once mustered up the courage to ask her. “Yeah, that sort of thing just happens sometimes when you do this kind of work.” And that was all I would ever hear from her about that. Period. In fact she had been granted an honorary membership to the British Empire (A Big Freaking Deal at the time!) but she honestly never cared about it. It wasn’t her thing.
But she loved to talk about how the village changed their name. She bragged about the people. They went from the “thrown away,” to their choice of “God’s Chosen.” That was the biggest deal of her life. Magic.
So let’s go back to this story of Jesus being born, Our story is this: When God shows up as an incarnate part of all human history, it happens as a “Fly Story:” the trip was miserable, Joseph wanted to divorce her, there was no room in the inn, and they ended up sleeping in a barn. Even if you want to make a big deal of the angels, they showed up to a group of shepherds… shepherds!: migrant, poor, dusty, gross, confused as hell, shepherds. That’s the makings of a fly story. Those aren’t bragging rights. That’s just….y’know, …magic.
Really good stories, like campfire stories, are amazing because when you tell them, if you tell them well, they make you lean in at just the right plot point. They silence you and make you long for resolution. A good story makes you lean in and listen. That is precisely what makes December 24th and 25th magical.
It is magical because we keep telling the story that God *came incarnate* to dwell among us with *actual* flesh and all that that entails. This God could have been full of expanding Fish stories like a lot of politicians and Demagogues like to tell.. But instead, this is the story, this is our story, of God who was born in a manger and who whose campaign adviser went to the poorest of the poor to announce his arrival first… …and last.
That, as it happens, is magic. And it is a story worth telling over and over again. There is nothing metaphysically special about December 24th or 25th. But if you are inclined to hear a particular story…
Tonight could change everything.
And it will continue to, every night of every year.