Once Upon A Time
This week's reflection is written by
Mr. Joseph McDaniel, OSFS.
We all have probably heard this spoken to us at some point during our lives as children, listening attentively as our parents, grandparents, or other loved ones recited fairy tales to us at our bedside, lulling us to sleep with tales of enchanted kingdoms, charming princes and dastardly villains, wizards and magical spells.
We likely learned much from these fairy tales, about the difference between good and evil, about the nature of courage and the power of true love. But from a young age, we also learned to distinguish the truths contained in these stories from their mythical genre. We learned that when the words “once a upon a time” are spoken, we are being invited into the dreamworld of fantasy, revealed to us as we are lulled peacefully to sleep.
This Christmas season, our families and faith communities will gather to hear a story that to many ears sounds much like one of those fairy tales from our childhood: a story of a miraculous birth, at once heralded by choirs of angels, shepherds and magi, and threatened by an evil king.
But unlike those fairy tales, this story does not begin with the standard dreamlike incantation. While “once upon a time” stories can happen anywhere in the world of imagination, we know that they happened nowhere in the world of human events.
In contrast, the Christmas story is placed by the evangelists within the realm of human history, perhaps most boldly illustrated by the Luke’s Gospel as recited at the Christmas Mass during the night:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria… (Luke 2:1-2)
Instead of lulling us into the sleep of fantasyland, into a realm that calls for the suspension of all disbelief, the starkness of Luke’s claim instead jars us awake. It opens itself to the inquiry of the questioning mind. As an ancient historian, Luke may not have recorded all the factual details correctly, but his central statement remains. It doesn’t just claim that at some place, at some time, real or imagined, the Christmas miracle happened. It claims that at a particular place, at a particular time, the Son of God was really born into the world.
With more than a tinge of irony, Luke begins his narrative by pointing to the most powerful worldly ruler of the time, Caesar Augustus. Years before the birth of Jesus, the birth of Augustus had been lauded as a work of “providence,” his coming as that of a “savior,” the era of his rule as the beginning of “good tidings” or “gospels” for the whole world.1 We know that while his reign did establish a fair degree of peace and prosperity within the Roman empire, this was often done at the expense of those peoples most on the margins, such as the people to which a humble carpenter and his young wife belonged. Unlike their imperial ruler, who was known as the princeps, the “first man,” it would be this nondescript couple’s unexpected child who would be the real savior, proclaiming the true Gospel to the world, not based on the military and economic success of the powerful, but on the love shared among the littlest of the human family. This true Son of Man would give us all power to be children of God (cf. John 1:12).
While the stories of shepherds, angels, and a mysterious star might make the Christmas story seem to belong to a mythical world, the mention of the rulers and powers of the day remind us that Jesus was born into the same world as ours, where the mighty continue to rise but then be cast down from their thrones, and where God continues to raise up the voices of the lowly (cf. Luke 1:52).
The Gospel that Jesus brings does not belong to a whimsical “once upon a time;” it belongs to the particular heres and nows that we all inhabit. Unlike Caesar Augustus, most of us did not come into the world heralded by grandiose memorial inscriptions, but much like Jesus, into the ordinary world of the carpenters, innkeepers, and shepherds of today. It is into this world that we are each called to proclaim tidings of great joy, that today, and every day, in the cities of Wilmington, Philadelphia, Washington, and wherever we inhabit, we may encounter the true savior who has been born for us, Christ the Lord (cf. Luke 2:11).