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A Story World and an Advent Calendar

Christmas is coming and, more important to me, the season of Advent is here. Of all the customs surrounding this season, I like the Advent ones the best. The creche, or nacimiento in Spanish, with its empty manger waiting expectantly. The Advent Wreath with its candles representing hope, peace, joy, and love. Especially, the Advent Calendar, telling a story of amazing events around the birth of Jesus.

I remember how Marleen and I and the children when they were young would open the doors of the Advent Calendar, one door each day, and read the inscriptions behind them. The story would get longer as we went through the days of Advent because we would start from the beginning and read all of the open doors every day until we had, practically by heart, the whole story on the last day.

Is this a story for Christians only? With some family and relation who no longer identify as Christian, I have looked for universal meaning in this Advent Calendar and the story it begins. I believe the story is for everyone and no less important today than it ever was.

We live in a story world, though you might not guess it. Modern ways of thinking, modern science, modern politics, and modern economics seem to have disenchanted the world to the extent that the old stories seem no longer relevant. We think we live in a reality shorn of mythical elements that in former, naive times made the world more understandable and tolerable. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can think of four modern enchantments and attendant stories with powerful and dangerously unseen effects on us. One, a story about how we think about ourselves: The Enlightenment taught us that each individual person needs to think for himself or herself, and we fall into imagining (along with everybody else ironically) that we really are individuals who make up our own ways of connecting to the world and each other, make up our own stories. It's the myth of the rugged individual. Two, a story about science and progress: Science makes formerly impossible things possible and everything easier and faster, and we're enchanted by that progress. This story says progress is a natural feature of reality, even though science itself knows nothing of such a value-laden thing as progress. Three, a political story: There's nothing natural about politics in our modern story. We imagine that nations began when formerly isolated individuals drew up some kind of contract, thereby institutionalizing common will and purposes; and for that institution we are willing to kill and die. A smaller and decreasing amount of our loyalty is left for the natural medium-size groupings of kin, workplace, civic associations, neighborhood, and neighborhood church that actually make us who we are, persons who only become individuals thorugh these various, sometimes competing associations. And four, a story about economics: We see wealth being created in our capitalistic economy (often created out of nothing but newly invented financial instruments), and it seems so magical that we make up a story about an "invisible hand" guding all our selfish decisions toward the common good.

So there are many enchanting stories, and not all of them are good ones. Not all of them tell the truth. We need to tell better stories than the ones above. We need truer myths. We'll be enchanted one way or another. The stories of Jesus come to us in this context.

Jesus is not a rugged indibvidual in these stories. Like us, but unlike our Enlightenment image of ourselves, Jesus becomes what he is through his connections. Jesus is connected to family. The story begins with kin: with Jesus' fore-runner, a cousin, John the Baptist, a fiery preacher; also with Jesus' mother Mary, questioning the angel, accepting, identifying with the poor, whom Jesus later loved; and with Joseph, courageous, defying custom, dreaming like another Joseph, whose dreams landed him in Egypt. Jesus is closely connected to his ethnic heritage. The story elements of magi's jourjney, the slaughter of the innocents, and a trip to and from Egypt, echoe Jewish hopes and history. Two different genealogies locate Jesus in time and space. One goes back to the Jew's ancestor Abraham; the other expands the connection to the whole world by tracing Jesus back to the mythical Adam.

But no one hearing this story can think of Jesus as the inevitable result of his history. There are amazing events in the stories. Not miracles in the modern sense of a disconnect from what has gone before--neither ancient Jews nor modern children think in terms of breaking a law of science--but, to say the least, big surprises. Also not mere progress from one level to the next higher as the modern myth has it but, rather, something really new and just about the opposite of what the world expects. Angels appear not to the high and mighty but to lowly shepherds. Just, upstanding Joseph violates convention and takes a pregnant woman into his home. Supposedly wise peoople start off after a star. A "son of God" (one of Caesar's royal titles) is craded in a feeding trough. A precocious 12-year-old turns his back on career and fame and is subject to humble parents for another 18 years. We have a premonition of something immense about to happen, but we can't imagine what.

There is death in the story, echoing the tragedy that nations and empires impose on history. Herod's slaughter of the children reminds us of the tragic history of the Jewish people under Pharaoh. Simeon foresees a sword that will pierce Mary's heart. Myrrh's "bitter perfume" tells of Jesus' end. He was crushed by the power for which others killed and still do, but now that power is twice deprived of glory--by the infants' helplessness and by Jesus' unfathomable failure to resist--and by the innocence of both.

In Jesus' story the magic of gift replaces the fake magic of self-interested monetary exchange. The magi present their gifts. The shepherds adore ("I give you my heart"). Even we make our attempts at gift giving. Neither the magi nor the shepherds expect a return. The gifts are freely given. The baby has nothing to give back except a smile, but that exchange symbolizes the uncontrollable gift-giving (and very contra-economic) center of all reality, in which Jesus, we feel certain, will pay his part.

This is some of the essentially human things I imagine wrapped up in the story that an Advent Calendar introduces. They ask you to think in mythical images, and you can do that with or without Christian faith. They challenge your deepest faith commitments, whether you're Christian or not. It's a story for our age, an age that only thinks it's gotten over superstition, an age that, though it doesn't know it, needs disenchantment as much as any other and re-enchantment more than most.