The late Marshall Dodge, I think it was, used to tell a story about an old-timer: a bachelor farmer who attended church every Sunday, sat by himself and always appeared to pay rapt attention to the sermon, whatever the subject.
One Sunday the sermon was about the power of faith. As an illustration, the preacher used the story from Matthew about Christ walking on the water to join his disciples in the boat. Peter, the parson pointed out, had the impulse to join Jesus on the water, but not quite enough faith. The implication was clear, that if any of us had sufficient faith, we might perform such miracles ourselves.
After church, a family was driving home and on their way passed the millpond. They looked out, and there was the old farmer up to his neck in the water. Naturally, they stopped.
“Ralph!” the father called. “You all right?”
“Yep,” the old man hollered back. “Took two or three steps before I went down.”
Just like old Ralph, I occasionally get moved by things I hear or read in church. Unlike old Ralph, however, I don’t get quite that moved. Most of us, I think, practice a certain modicum of discretion in distinguishing between the probable and the improbable. It’s highly improbable, for example, that no matter how much faith I might feebly muster, I can, as Christ suggests, get Mount Washington to move itself into the ocean. I generally avoid the test by asking, “Why would I want to do a thing like that?”
No responsible judge or editor ever would admit as evidence the stories of our various religions. But no responsible believer would expect him to. For relatively few people are the stories of their faith — creation, interactions with the Almighty, miracles — to be taken literally. In fact, it’s possible that there isn’t any such thing as a completely “true” story. But that’s not important. What count are the metaphor, the lesson and the examples of others who’ve preceded us, from Abraham to Judas or poor, fallible Peter. They’re in the stories. Elie Wiesel once cracked, “God created man because he loved stories.”
What prompted these reflections is that this past Sunday was the first day of Advent, the beginning of the church year and the period during which Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. Never mind that December was by all odds not the month of his birth, or that the early church put it there to piggyback on the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia. It’s the story and symbolism that are striking: a light shining in the darkness (of midwinter, of Roman occupation and of a brutal satrap governor); a tiny, vulnerable baby (instead of the powerful Mashiach the Jews expected and the supplanter king that Herod feared); and a mystical, long-foretold birth announced by a star and angels, and recognized by the surprise appearance of (nobody’s sure how many) Zoroastrian priests from “the East.”
Scholars have long tied themselves in knots attempting to illuminate the murky details of the origins of the faith, but to little avail; to the faithful, the words in the Gospel of Luke are enough. And the centuries of traditional hymns and celebrations added since, especially in Great Britain, have cemented the images in our minds — and in this season of expectation, our hearts.
It’s fashionable, if postings on the Internet are any indication, to mock the believers in what’s at best a questionable story about a sudden irruption of the Almighty into human affairs in the person of a child, one born into the humblest of circumstances and destined for a humiliating death. None of that matters; because whether you believe it or not, the symbolism and the metaphor are what most of us are after. At this time of the year, as the darkness and cold deepen and almost every bit of news we hear is grim or portentous, can it be wrong to hope for better news, for warmer hearts, for a less beleaguered world?
We sang a hymn, “People, Look East,” whose symbolism is especially poignant. One verse:
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.
Willem Lange lives in East Montpelier.