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Christmas: A still small voice in the midst of fast-paced lives

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Wednesday, December 20th, 2006 — Story has it that a Roman Catholic cardinal and a priest scripture scholar were seated next to each other at a dinner.

Putting his dinner partner to the test, the cardinal complained about some scholars who were saying no one knows how many Magi or wise men came offering homage to the Christ child.

"That's easy. There were six," said the priest. The cardinal objected, but the priest went on: "There are relics of the heads of three wise men in the cathedral in Cologne and relics of the heads of three wise men in Milan. Three plus three equals six!"

There may be cardinals and others, even today, who believe the Nativity story is "gospel truth." However, with or without the weight of historical fact, nearly 2 billion people around the world will come once again to celebrate this powerful and moving story, the real truth of which overflows literal boundaries the way poetry has meaning far richer than the words on the page.

Appreciating the story for its human content also helps to overcome the barriers imposed by literalism. The Christmas tradition can be celebrated side by side with, not over and against other traditions of the season.

Still, the narrative continues to be honed and fine-tuned. One such re-telling is the current movie, "The Nativity Story." There are no surprising twists in the telling, but the movie imagines the story through a very human lens. The characters shed their superhuman piety and the social political setting of the time comes to life. The cardinal from the dinner party would probably be pleased that the requisite three wise men appear. He might not have been as amused as I about how they are portrayed.

These are not the stately, brilliant kings, one expects to show up for Christmas (or more precisely for Epiphany). Instead, they remind me of the way many of us go about preparing for Christmas. These three wise men resemble Santa Claus, Martha Stewart and Ebenezer Scrooge.

The plans and preparations are endless. One of the wise men fills up huge baskets with maps, the way we might pile up lists and goodies. One won't go on the journey unless he is allowed to bring another camel to carry his finery. The third king refuses to go because he thinks the others are crazy, but joins them some days later -- feigning grumpiness, but there just the same.

These guys are fussbudgets. They travel with the same combination of excitement and resistance as many of us moderns when it comes to Christmas. They want to get it just right.

No amount of fine-tuning will make the story historical -- nor does it need to be. Many say the story was meant to confer status, just as other birth narratives from this period do. Even the famous census that is the occasion for the journey does not conform to historical records. But attempts to "get the story right," like the rest of our Christmas preparations, probably speak worlds about our need to continue bringing its message to life in our time and in our own way. We treasure the traditions because they are our link to something we can only imagine.

From the beginning, the Christmas story has been about hope, and believing that light will overcome darkness. We need this message now more than ever, as so much of our world is in the darkness of violence, poverty or isolation of a fast-paced society. But this light is not one that shines at the whim of the gods, as the original mythology of the ancient world taught. The light of Christmas is carried in the strong hands and generous hearts of real people.

No matter how we journey through this season, our ultimate goal and destination is not falling to our knees in awe. That may be the beginning for some, but there is more. Christmas awe and wonder can unleash the power of real people to bring the message of hope into the real world.

Christmas joy is fragile, like the "still small voice" that the Jewish people were listening for 2,000 years ago. Our storytelling and celebrating are testimony to our desire to be swept up once again into the mystery of that voice, which ultimately confirms the goodness and beauty of the human spirit.

Whether there were three kings or six, or even 100, is not important. The real gift and challenge of Christmas is to hear that still small voice and believe that we are meant to live all of our days in a way that makes the world a kinder and gentler place.