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Does the Christmas story need to be dusted off?

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Wednesday, December 10th, 2003 —  For 2000 years, Christians have retold a Christmas story that for some today has lost its sparkle.

We listen to a tale that stretches our intellects beyond where they can rationally go, to a guiding star luring kings and wise men to a manger, to the awed and worshipful animals, to a virgin birth.

At a time when any hope of a peaceful, just world depends on our appreciation of all cultures, some bristle at this story's potential for exclusivity. Some even claim that "us vs. them" exclusiveness is at the heart of the story.

We dance around these pitfalls by augmenting the traditional story, emphasizing ideas extrapolated from it: the spirit of giving, slowing down the pace of life, making time for family and friends, and treasuring moments of peace.

In short, it is possible to live in the spirit of this season with heartfelt joy, even without paying too much attention to the underlying narrative.

But in taking a critical look at the story itself, it quickly is apparent that there are important kernels we can miss if we throw it all out because we live in a world so far removed from the one where it took shape.

Many people could weigh in on this; my reading is only one of many possibilities. A community dialogue on the subject might net the most profound and lasting interpretation for our time and place in history. This is also not the only story we could tell. Other religious traditions give us beautiful versions of similar human aspirations.

As one voice in the community, I would make two observations about why this story of a simple, young woman giving birth to a child has so much attraction for me.

First, throughout the story, what I hear is a resounding, "yes." Yes to life. Yes, not to the prevailing attitudes but to the "still small voice" from deep in my subconscious. Yes to believing in myself. Even yes to believing what anyone else would tell me is patently unbelievable.

I need this kind of reminder. I can easily fall victim to a modern cynicism that sabotages my own best intensions. How often do we find ourselves struggling to hold to principles that matter most to us in the face of the world's disbelief?

Over and over we are challenged to say yes to the small voice we know speaks the truth. This story about a birth from long ago reminds me that each of us can bring a light to the world. Even if one chooses to believe that the story speaks in metaphors, this message is no less real.

Second, this legend speaks to my natural fascination with mystery. It moves me to a sense of wonder and awe. Regular doses of wonder act as a counterpoint to the demands for quick facts and expedient decisions. I need to know my world is larger than that which I can readily see and touch -- that the universe is greater than I can possibly imagine.

History records say we humans have been moved by the desire to fall down on our knees since time began. In spite of our huge accumulation of knowledge, and our command of many of the forces of nature, we can still be plagued by thoughts of, "Is that all there is?"

The sheer simplicity of the Christmas story -- its child-like sense of wonder at guiding stars and awed, worshipful animals -- draws me out of my everyday world. Emerged in this story, I once again hear the promise that light will prevail over darkness, in each of us and in the world. This is both mystery and miracle, and gives me reason to pause.

The truths contained in religious traditions are deeper than the texts that convey them. They are born of the visions, dreams, hopes and fears of real people who were made of the same stuff as we are -- despite living long ago in distant worlds.

The Christmas story is one rich with meaning. I envy those who come to it with such innocence that its beauty is immediately visible to them, those who figuratively fall down on their knees.

I come more slowly, needing to dust it off. But I cannot brush it aside. Slowly or not, it is in believing that the miracle comes to life. I will cling to this story and what it promises.