12/22/2010 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Deep Truth of the Christmas Story

There's a guy down my street who's joined in the national "It's Christmas, not Holiday" campaign (BTW, this group's Facebook page says it was founded in 1 A.D.) Among the Christmas decorations on my neighbor's front fence is a hand-lettered sign that proclaims "It's NOT Christmas STORY, it's Christmas TRUTH."

Well, I need to walk up the street and knock on his door and say "It's both, actually."

I want to begin by telling him about a group of people who care a lot about truth, and a lot about stories. These people live in Northeast England, dispersed throughout a number of towns and villages, but they come together regularly to do church. They call themselves Christian, Celtic Christians. When they gather, they use the rhythmic cadences and lilting sounds of Celtic prayer. They gather to sing and to pray and to tell stories, the stories of scripture seen through the lenses of their own lives, and they also tell their own stories. They call their place of gathering "a telling place."

A Telling Place, they say, is a spot where heaven and earth meet, a "thin space" where assumed truths are challenged.

I want to tell my neighbor that the church has been, since long before "1 AD," a telling place. I imagine our foremothers and fathers, sitting around a campfire in a Middle Eastern desert, telling their tales of creation, the story about the garden and the apple and the origins of pain and suffering, or the one about the rainbow and the ark and the possibility of hope, or the one about Moses finding his voice and telling Pharaoh "let my people go." Or later, as our ancestors gathered to share bread and wine, they told the one about an encounter in another garden, a stone rolled away from a tomb. So many stories, such a rich collection of experiences and remembrances and imaginings about God; that's what we call the Bible.

The ancients knew, of course, that the point of their stories was not factual truth. They told stories of truth deeper than fact.

Some of our more recent ancestors forgot this deep truth of the stories gathered in the church's Telling Place. With the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, the dawning of the age of science, some took a position that said stories could only be true if they were factually true. They forgot the deep metaphorical truth of the first storytellers and began to read our biblical narrative as if it were biology or geography or history.

In the 20th century, these voices became a loud roar crying out for a literalistic interpretation of the old stories and some of the old laws. These voices still shout, often with anger, with fingers pointing and bibles shaking to damn the one who is different.

But at Christmas we hear the voice of one of the ancient storytellers, Luke, one who told his stories with an ear to the prophets of the old days, and an eye to the realities of his world. Stepping into the Telling Place, Luke tells a story that echoes the prophet Isaiah, a story of a young virgin, a starry night, shepherds, angels, a new baby. We know this story. This is not a story about biology or astronomy.

The deep truth that Luke points to as he steps into the Telling Place is about who these people are in their world -- Mary and Joseph and those shepherds -- and about who God is in the world and what God does in the world.

These are poor people, Mary and Joseph. Luke's mother obviously did not teach him that it is not polite to talk in public about religion or money or politics. He always talks about all three, all the time. Luke cares about who is poor and who is rich and what that means. Mary and Joseph are poor, and that means that they must travel to their birthplace for the census. And where was their destination? Luke recalls that the prophets said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the savior; that a new messiah would come out of the city of David. In Luke's telling, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem.

And of course, the emperor, the symbol of power and wealth, the ever-present, ever-tight grasp of Rome reaches into this story. In earlier times it was the grasp of a Pharaoh, a Babylonian, a Greek. Always, the hand of the mighty is on the back of the poor. And this is not right, Luke believes. This is not the way God would have it. It is Luke, remember, who gives Mary the song where she sings "My spirit magnifies the Lord," and says the poor would be filled up, the rich sent empty away. The lowly would be lifted up. God is doing the lifting up again in this story, the lifting up of the poor. And in a later story, when Mary's boy grows up and preaches his first sermon, he says "come to bring good news to the poor" and sometime after that, in defiance of the power of Rome, he proclaims, "Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek." There is truth in this story.

Luke says that God joins humanity through the body of a poor peasant girl finding shelter in an animal stable. God joins us in a place far from the marble palaces of Rome or the temples of official religion. And the first ones to know about it are not princes or generals or priests, but shepherds. Luke brings in the shepherds for his story. None better to underline his point about the rich and the poor. None lower on the economic ladder than the shepherds. The first ones to know, the first ones to see the way that God enters our world are the ones without homes, without names, without anything to claim as their own, the ones who wouldn't even be counted in Caesar's census. Empty-handed, these shepherds receive the glory that lit the night sky. They hear the angel song, the summons to the dawning of grace.

Luke, in the Telling Place, has given us a true story, with a truth we all know deep in our hearts:

The truth that God is to be found at the edges, in a backwater village with some migrant peasants seeking warmth for the night next to the animals.

God is to be found with those shepherds who count for nothing; and with the homeless teen who walks a street near you.

God is to be found with Mary -- young, poor and vulnerable -- and with a young soldier deployed to Kandahar, wondering if she'll be back home for her 21st birthday.

God is to be found with Joseph, bound to bear the obligations of family and tribe under the oppression of a foreign occupation; and with the unemployed Gulf Coast shrimper, staring at his kids' empty Christmas stockings.

In the Telling Place, where heaven and earth meet and assumed truths are challenged, the story of that birth at Bethlehem does not stay put on the gilt-edge pages of a bible. The truth of Luke's story is that it is still being told in the events of our day, in the events of our headlines and the secrets of our hearts, whenever and wherever any one of us feels at risk like Mary, caught like Joseph, unworthy like those shepherds, scared like that soldier. In those places of utter vulnerability, God comes. That's some story, that's some truth, neighbor.