My first Advent after taking Scripture courses at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry was a memorable one. Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Raymond Brown, John Dominic Crossan, Elizabeth Johnson, and Marcus Borg books lined my shelves. Their ideas filled my thinking which in turn informed my praying. I had different ears when I heard the familiar proclamations in liturgy of Isaiah’s promise of lions and lambs living in peace, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem, Joseph’s dream, the birth of Jesus.
There are two infancy narratives in the canonical gospels, each of them quite distinct, though through carols, pageants, and Christmas cards they have been seamlessly merged in our imagination. Looking at the narratives with a critical scholarly eye is an entirely different exercise than looking at them on the surface level. A hermeuntic of suspicion had replaced a hermeneutic of sentimentality. Through study I wrestled with the questions: who wrote these narratives? When, why, and to whom? How historically accurate are they? What can we know or reasonably infer about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth?
Like many a divinity school student, the influx of academic knowledge changed my experience of Advent and Christmas.
“Do you think it really happened that way?” I asked my friend Brian one cold winter evening at the Catholic Worker farm as we gathered wood for a Christmas Eve bonfire.
“I mean,” I explained, as we tramped through the woods picking up kindling, “do you think there were really shepherds, wise men, the star, angels…all that is described in Luke and Matthew?”
I was asking about his perception of the historical veracity of the infancy narratives in the canonical gospels, but Brian heard my question differently.
“I think it really happens that way,” he answered. “I think God comes into this world poor and in unexpected places.”
He went on to say – his breath coming out in cold white puffs before his face – that the stories need not be dissected as historical documents but rather offer us a timeless pattern of truth. That it’s not so much a matter of what literally happened 2,000 years ago in Palestine. Instead they provide a lens through which we can look for the inbreaking of God in the world today.
Coming in ways that are small, poor, hidden, unexpected.
Coming into a world torn by violence, battered by the death-dealing forces of empire, struggling against powers and principalities that seek to extinguish the light.
Coming in glory – though not a glory that we understand or can even see.
“I think it really happens that way.”
His words pulled me out of the academic rabbit hole into which I had plunged and put my feet back on the earth. Brian’s response invited a new set of questions for me. Not questions to be explored through poring over Greek intralinear Bibles, studying the cultural and political realities of the Ancient Near East, or reading weighty academic tomes on the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship – as worthy as those endeavors may be. Rather, they are questions to be explored through the mysteries and messiness of service, community, and human relationship.
In what poor, unexpected corners of today’s world might the Divine be being birthed?
Where the one named Prince of Peace might be found amid the violence of Syria, Honduras, Ferguson?
Who are the ones for whom there is no room at the inn?
Brian and I gathered with other members of the Catholic Worker community that Christmas Eve, about a dozen of us gathered in prayer under the stars of a cloudless night sky. We were black and white, young and old, children and elders, ex-felons and ministers. Some of us wrestling with demons of addiction or mental illness others with those of consumerism and compulsive over-achieving. Saints and sinners all, standing in silence before the heat of the light of the fire. All of us claiming the promise of Emmanuel – God with us.
Christmas happens this way.
About the author: Rhonda Miska is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, she spent the last nine years living in Central Virginia where her ministries included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.