Ancient stories were told to accommodate an audience. Who was sharing them, and who was listening to or reading them? What were these people facing, and what had they been through? What motivated the storyteller? Look at those elements, and you’ll understand why the stories changed.
In my first graduate program, I learned to watch for these parts – and ask why they appeared – when I studied textual criticism of ancient manuscripts, a fancy way of saying I compared versions of old stories. You see, different versions didn’t bother ancient storytellers, and they’d certainly never call them “competing narratives” – because stories weren’t about fact. Their value stood in the telling, the accommodating. In fact, one semester I spent a whole course translating the Gospel of Matthew and cross-referencing it with other manuscripts that had similar stories – whether canonical, apocryphal, or scraps of preserved archeological discoveries.
Take, for example, the Christmas story. I think you’ll agree it’s apt, since we’re in midst of the holiday season. There are four Gospels in the Bible, with two versions of the nativity in it and countless others outside it, confusing the couple of kids actually paying attention in Sunday School. Many adults try to synthesize the versions. Scholars have written tomes over the divergences. And modern accounts have all but forgotten its role, now that Santa has taken the mainstage.
But you may be wondering, “Why is Sarah going over all this? No one picked up The Anchorage Press for a history lesson.” Fair enough. I’ll tell you why: I think we’d benefit from other takes on the Christmas story, and I have one to offer.
Mary had fled a volatile husband, crossing the rocky Judean terrain at night by foot, grateful to have stumbled upon a stable where she dared to creep in and hide. Exhausted, she collapsed on the hay, and a cow stared at her, surprised by the unexpected company.
Mary sighed, pulling her knees to her chest but unable to cry. Then she felt it. A presence. The hairs on her arms stood up.
No, Mary thought. No one followed me here. I’m alone. I’m safe.
She heard a whimper, and the cow looked away from her. Someone was there.
At first, Mary didn’t budge. But that sound. It couldn’t have come from an adult.
“A child?” she whispered.
Mary rolled up, fast, head cocked, listening. Another whimper. She sprung to her feet, rushing to look in the few stalls in the small structure.
There he was. Alone. A baby wrapped in a tattered sheet, edges ripped, stained with splotches of blood. He was laying in the hay too. But the infant wasn’t moving, wasn’t crying. He was blue. His lips were pale. And the thick brown hair that covered his head was matted down, like he’d been sweating hard in a hat, gone missing. Just born. Already abandoned.
All it took was picking him up. In so doing, in that one gesture, Mary became his mother.
Tears spilled down her cheeks. Like her son, blood stained her robes, but not from having given birth. She crumpled to her knees, looking into his face and willing vigorous life back into his tiny body. Jesus. He began to wail, and she knew there was hope for him now.
The door of the stable flew open, and three men barged in. But again Mary didn’t budge.
“Lady, you okay?” the first man asked, while the others stared, confused. Only moments before, they’d seen her, sneaking across the pasture. Definitely not holding a baby. Hadn’t seemed pregnant. Couldn’t have delivered one that quickly.
But Mary didn’t say a word to explain. Let the people think what they wanted. She sensed they meant her and the child no harm. “He needs milk,” she said, looking straight into the questioner’s eyes. “I have none.”
“I’ll take her back to my place,” one shepherd said to the others. “My wife can nurse.” He looked at Mary. “Can you walk now?”
“Yes” was all she said.
Mary stayed with that family for a while, months even, doing chores around their house to earn her keep. But she remained vigilant, knowing in just a matter of time her husband might find her.
The friends of the woman she stayed with included her, but they wondered about the bits and pieces they learned about Mary and her child. Nothing added up. She insisted there was no father. Said she couldn’t lactate. Shared nothing about where she’d come from and why she’d left. They wondered what was true. But two things they knew for sure: Mary loved the child, and the child softened in her arms – and hers alone.
One day, Mary saw her husband in the market. He spoke to a vendor, the town loudmouth. She’d be discovered soon. Mary rushed back home.
“I must go. It’s not safe for me or Jesus here any longer,” she said, scooping him from the ground into her arms. Mary did not wait for a reply and stepped out the door. Pausing, she looked over her shoulder. “Someday, we will return. You cannot imagine what you’ve done for us. Thank you.” And they left.
The wife gaped. What kind of woman was Mary, so certain? More important, what would she tell her friends about this strange departure?
Now, of course, this version is mine. Entirely made up. There’s basis to it, but not fact – and would certainly be deemed heretical by many. But that’s okay with me, because, like the ancient storytellers, I believe stories are valuable when they’re accommodating. You see, I’ve been concocting this version for two years, based off my own life, and lately I’ve found more hope in it than its traditional counterpart.
So, this Christmas, I’m celebrating Mary’s strength and what it did for her son.
But what I want to know is: how would you change the nativity to give you hope? Think outside the box. There’s room for your version too.