Reader and writer, we wish each other well. Don’t we want and don’t we understand the same thing? A story of beauty and passion, some fresh approximation of human truth?
— Eudora Welty, On Writing
We return to the Gospel stories of the birth of Jesus every year. We line them out in song, in chorus, sermon, poetry, and plays. Our children, every last one of them, have their parts in the Christmas play. We watch, amused, tense, conscious of each lisp and stutter, against the backdrop of church platform or gym stage. Later, in the parking lot, under the cold brilliance of stars, some of which may no longer burn, we start up sluggish car engines and praise our children while the heater thrashes to warmth. The baby Jesus survives all this with a tender smile on his lips.
Scholars tell us that most certainly the baby Jesus was not born in the winter, not on December 25, maybe not in Bethlehem, and that the stable and manger would not look anything like those painted so lovingly by Botticelli or Raphael or Rembrandt. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The telling of it carries us through the year.
There is a young woman vastly pregnant, her man protective but terrified, no pre-natal care, unblinking poverty, insurgents stroking their weapons, police with a license to kill, and all of this under a ruler who is vain, paranoid, ignorant, and volatile. It’s a story that is playing somewhere in the world every hour.
But this story, once heard and thereafter wholly imagined, transcends the details. It becomes a universal story, a comedy within a tragedy. It is as if, to choose a ready example, a Rohingya mother gave birth in a refugee camp to an infant who, thirty years later, emerged as a healer and a teacher. That is the grit and dust and blood of it. But more, this child as a man, against all odds, against all socioeconomic factors, in spite of racism, poverty, oppression, disease, and everything else that conspires to twist a child into a despairing and lethal weapon—in spite of all that—this child becomes a man who is compassion incarnated.
And the story survives too, year after year, resisting the corrosion of the hucksters and the false prophets, because it is a story so incredible that its truth, when imagined, can simply be lived.