"We, three kings of Orient are," intone the guys in robes and crowns. But were they really three, or kings for that matter, and from where exactly did they come? Every year at this time, questions about historicity -- what really happened (and what didn't) in the Christmas story -- come bubbling up: that the infant's first habitation was more cave than stable and possibly not in Bethlehem at all; that Jesus was born in or before 4 B.C., when the half-blood Herod died, rather than in the year zero, which Monk Dennis established centuries after the fact to launch the new anno domine era.
Observatories host Christmas Star talks alongside their night sky viewings. And co-eds on Christmas break unsettle their families with information about solstice traditions and the Roman birth-of-the-sun festival as the bases for a date mid-winter and specifically December 25. How should we take that biblical genealogy that situates Jesus in Joseph's bloodline?
They are good questions, important questions. The quest to determine historicity, to ferret out and declare what really happened is all fine and good. But to yoke the truth to such investigation, to presume that what is real must be material or scientifically verifiable is another step and sometimes misstep at that. Such equation is not a given. Truth and fact are not necessarily the same thing. Fiction also traffics in what is real.
Human beings are story-telling creatures. Stories help us to understand our world, to find our place in it and sometimes our purpose, too. So, the distinctions we draw between fact and fiction are rarely as absolute as we might wish them to be. Ask anyone. The truth lingers in Marvel Comics -- "Pow!," "Shazzam!", and all. Reality is on display in the struggle of Katniss Everdeen against a dehumanizing and violently superficial world. And the morals of a terminally ill person trying to secure his family's future might indeed come undone. Stories "work" because at some point or some how we find that they are true.
When the velveteen rabbit asks, "What is REAL?", the wise old horse answers that being real isn't an, original or static condition. "It's something that happens." And it happens, he says, when you are really, truly loved. (An alternative title for Marjorie Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit is How Toys become Real.) The Bible is chock full of fictions that have become real in the ways that people have told and embraced them -- not necessarily as a seven, twenty-four hour day creation in some geographical location whence the biologically first homo sapiens were evicted; and not necessarily that a Jewish girl went into labor after midnight on December 25 and laid the baby in a manger.
The stories do not demand that we read them as journalistic reporting. Neither do they come to us as silly flights of fancy. That a universal and eternal God so desired amends with(in) earth that she would become a poor middle-eastern baby in Roman-occupied Judah can be its own powerful truth. At the heart of it, the stories, well-loved, tell what is real.
For a long time, I found debates about miracles to be unsatisfying at best and usually really uncomfortable, too. The choice was straightforward. Either you went with efforts to identify a scientific basis -- the biological conditions that Egypt may have experienced to create a blood-like Nile to fit the Exodus story, for example. Or if you were truly faithful, you'd simply declare that "with God all things are possible" -- that God naturally suspended natural laws to make the sun stand still or multiplied meager foodstuffs to feed a crowd. Neither approach works for me. Thank goodness there's another.
Einstein, master of the real in the most calculably scientific of ways, put his finger on it. He observed "two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Gravity as a definable force, the constitution of water as a bunch of air-type atoms bound up in molecules two to one, cliff swallows growing shorter wings the better to dodge automobiles, a farmer's immune system fighting off his melanoma, the social system of honeybees,... each and every fact a blooming miracle.
Mary's conception, John's fetal recognition of the Christ, a great big long-tailed star suspended over a humble spot in Palestine,... biblical miracles are embedded in stories. When we take them as such, debate drops away. For the tales neither digress into scientific explanations nor pontificate on the virtues of intellectual suspension. They simply invite us to listen and get on with the story.
If we step aside from the historicity argument and oh, star of wonder, appreciate instead the narratives with all their literary and theological dependencies, their historically bound contexts, discrepancies, simplicities, and sophisticated restraint, then we may find that it all becomes quite possibly real and true. And if in hearing the Christmas story yet again one stumbles on a bit of peace, of love and joy, the sense of God in earth, and someone to adore, then as for me, I'd have to say, it's a miracle for real, every bit of it true.
Follow Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kristinswenson