The Power of a Still Small Voice

Read: 1 Kings 19

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NRSV).

Is it just me, or does the prophet Elijah strike you as someone who is seriously depressed?

I know it’s dangerous to diagnose someone from a distance—especially a distance of 3000 years—but the symptoms are staring us right in the face. In spite of the fact that Elijah has just come off what is arguably the peak of his prophetic career, this chapter finds him running for his life. Gone is the confident, sarcastic, swash-buckling prophet who defeated the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah in the previous chapter. Here, Elijah is meek as a mouse. He has lost his appetite, just wants to sleep, and has lost all interest in his “daily activities.” While it doesn’t quite count as “suicidal ideations,” asking God to end it all for you comes pretty close.

God is not open to this suggestion, however, and spirits Elijah off to Mt. Sinai for a little lesson in perspective. Unimpressed by Elijah’s lament (“I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away”), God rustles up an impressive series of special effects. Yet God is not “in” any of them. Instead, God’s presence shows up in the least likely of places: in the “sound of a faint whisper” (my translation).

Why should we care how this obscure little Hebrew phrase gets translated? Because if we get it wrong, it’s impossible to get God’s point. And as it happens, it’s a very important point—especially now.

Everyone assumes that God’s power will come through the earthquake, wind, and fire. Those, after all, are the usual suspects in any self-respecting theophany. But this passage—when translated literally—reminds us that God’s power can also be made manifest in weakness.

While I’m usually a fan of the NRSV (I’ve made generations of students buy it), the NRSV’s translation of this phrase is spectacularly misleading. Even in the new “updated edition,” they render the relevant phrase as: “a sound of sheer silence.” At the risk of revealing my age, I think this translation is under the influence of Simon and Garfunkel. Sure, it alliterates nicely, but it completely misses the point.

So, what’s the point? Elijah thinks he’s alone and powerless. He feels like his voice is no bigger than a whisper—and a faint one at that. God’s point is that the Lord of the universe can work through faint whispers.

That, it seems to me, is a particularly important point—not just for Elijah, but for us. “I alone am left!” we whimper as our denominations shrink and our voice gets drowned out by all manner of noise. “What difference will my one vote make?” we wonder in the face of super PAC politics.

This story suggests that we need to get over ourselves. So what if we’re little more than a faint whisper? God can work through that.

Ponder: Elijah seems to miss the point in v. 14. (His answer is precisely what it was before God’s demonstration.) What can we learn from what God says to him in vv. 15-18? Are we really as alone as we think we are?

Pray: Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire Thy still small voice of calm.

A Tragic Trajectory

Read: Song of Solomon 3:1-4

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not; I called, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me” (Song of Solomon 3:1-4, NRSV).

Navigators rely on something called the “one degree rule.” If you’re flying a plane, this means that for each degree you’re off course, you’ll miss your destination by one mile for every 60 miles you fly. In practical terms, this means that if you’re trying to fly from LaGuardia to O’Hare, but you miscalculate by even one degree, you’ll end up in Lake Michigan. Not good. The longer one flies, the more drastic the deviation. If you’re trying to circumnavigate the globe, you’ll end up a whopping 500 miles off course.

It’s obvious why this rule matters for navigation. But as an analogy, I think it matters for interpretation as well.

In case you’re just joining this series, we’ve been looking at examples of just how much interpretation goes into translation. The series is called, “What a Difference a Word Makes,” and it seeks to highlight a handful of words that may be translated in different ways, but which have very different meanings.

This week’s word is nephesh, for which there is no good English equivalent. In my opinion, this word wins the prize for how a bad translational choice can skew one’s entire theology. One degree off can—and has—ended us up in the drink.

With this as preface, let’s look at a passage that makes liberal use of the Hebrew word, nephesh.

In four short verses, the female protagonist in Song of Solomon 3:1-4 refers to her lover as the one “whom my nephesh loves” four times. Most English translations render this as the one “whom my soul loves.” It’s beautiful, I suppose. But before you use the line on your homemade Valentine’s Day card, you might want to examine your assumptions.

The English word “soul” denotes “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being…the part that is regarded as immortal.”

You don’t have to read very far in the Song of Solomon to know that the lovers’ relationship is more than spiritual. Whole chapters are devoted to enumerating each other’s physical attractions. One has to allow for changes in “love language”—perhaps you will be less thrilled than the woman in the Song to have your lover describe your neck as a “tower of David”—but the physicality of the descriptions is undeniable.

Why should we care, you may ask.

Here’s why. The Hebrew word nephesh includes the physical, the spiritual, and the psychological. When the female lover talks about the one whom her nephesh loves, she’s essentially saying, “All of me! Why not take all of me!” I love you with every part of my being.

I do have some sympathy for translators in this instance. As I’ve pointed out, English has no good equivalent for the Hebrew word, nephesh. (What does that say about us?) But when we translate nephesh as “soul,” we risk spiritualizing something that was never meant to be exclusively spiritual.

There is a lesson in this for those who see sexual intimacy as purely physical as well. The use of the word nephesh in the Song elevates the couple’s relationship in a way that should serve as both a caution and an inspiration to our sex-obsessed, pornography-prone culture.

So, how would I translate nephesh? I appreciate the NRSV’s efforts in translating it as “living being” in Genesis 2:7. When God forms Adam from the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life, Adam becomes a “living being.” That preserves something of the “package deal” that nephesh implies. And it saves a lot of heavy lifting when we get to the New Testament and people start talking about the “resurrection of the body.”

But I wonder if this is one of those instances where we might just have to buckle down and learn a new word. I’m a nephesh, you’re a nephesh, all God’s creatures are a nephesh. Anything less risks getting us seriously off course.

Ponder: Try substituting the Hebrew word nephesh every time you encounter the English word “soul” in the Old Testament. How does it change the meaning of what you read?

Pray: All of me. Why not take all of me, O God? I offer all that I am to you.

One Foot in Front of the Other

Read: Habakkuk 2:1-4; 3:16-19

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith (Habakkuk 2:1-4, NRSV).

“The righteous live by their faith,” the prophet Habakkuk assures us.

That’s one of those things that is true until it isn’t. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you feel like your faith is pretty much running on fumes, you’ll know what I mean. “I know that I’m supposed to live by faith,” you say to yourself. “But it’s my faith that’s flagging. How am I supposed to live by something so unreliable?”

The irony here is that we often make faith into a kind of commodity—or worse—an achievement. If you’re familiar with the role this verse played in the Reformation, this is mind-blowing. Martin Luther famously relied on this verse to argue that we are justified by faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ—and not by our own works. New Testament writers blazed the trail for this important point by also quoting this pivotal verse from the prophet Habakkuk (see Romans 1:17, Galations 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38). I suspect all of them would be horrified at this tendency to make faith itself one of the “works” by which we seek salvation.

I’m not here to pick a fight with Martin Luther, or much less, with these New Testament writers. Like Luther, I am one of those people who is cursed with a low sense of guilt and a high sense of responsibility. Works are exhausting. I could out-do all the do-gooders in the world and it would still not be enough. I’ll take faith over works any day. And yet….

We’re right back where we started, aren’t we? If the righteous are supposed to live by faith, then what happens when our faith is not always as strong as we’d like it to be?

There is help here, I think, in taking a closer look at Habakkuk’s word choice. The Hebrew word, emunah, is one of those words that can mean two things at once. Yes, it means “faith”; but it also means “faithfulness.” In our hurry to hear the canonical echoes with the New Testament, we often fail to listen for this equally important meaning. “Yes,” Habakkuk is saying, the righteous shall live by their faith. But at the very same time, they shall live by their faithfulness.

If you want an example of what he’s talking about, read all the way to the end of his little book. There, in a few verses of poignant poetry, the prophet gives us a glimpse of this kind of “one foot in front of the other” faith/faithfulness. Even if you’re not a farmer, I think you’ll appreciate the pain and the courage of these words:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and there is no fruit on the vines;

though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;

though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

and makes me tread upon the heights.

What’s the message here? Maybe it is simply this: When faith flags, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes faith is less of a feeling than it is an act of gritty determination. And both, in the end, are a gift from God.

Ponder: What does living by faith/faithfulness look like in your own life right now?

Pray: I believe. Help thou my unbelief. Help me to be faithful even when faith is in short supply.

Welcome to the Crew

Read: Genesis 1:24-31

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV).

We don’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously.

So, let’s take a serious look at what it means for us as humans, created in the image of God, to have “dominion” over our fellow creatures.

Bible-reading believers over the centuries have assumed that this word gives us a license to plunder the earth and its creatures. It doesn’t help that the word “dominion” (radah) is aided and abetted by another word in verse 28 (kabash) that means “subdue.” Together, these two words have been responsible for more ecological damage than fossil fuels and plastic put together.

If I could run to my Hebrew lexicon and make these words mean something else, I would. But I can’t. The usual English translations mean what they seem to mean. So, in a sense, we need to start by acknowledging that these two words win the “what a difference a word makes” contest in a negative sense.

Still…is it fair to blame the words? It seems to me the problem is not so much the words themselves as the interpretation of them.

Old Testament professor, Ellen Davis, claims that “the ecological crisis is essentially not a technological crisis, but a theological one. It is a massive disordering in our relationship with God, the Creator of heaven and earth” (Getting Involved With God, p. 185). If she’s right—and I think she is—then we need to pay careful attention to what this passage says about what God intends for that relationship to be.

It seems to me that being created in the image and likeness of God should make a monumental difference in how we exercise our “dominion.” If this first chapter of the Bible tells us anything about God, it is that God delights in creation. The least we can do as God’s image-bearers is to see to its flourishing.

Perhaps if we read this passage with an eye toward responsibility rather than privilege it would help. It is, after all, a profound responsibility to be tasked with the care and feeding of something as exquisite as the earth and all its creatures.

Canadian philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, reminds us of our responsibility by pointing out that: “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

So, welcome to the crew of spaceship earth. It is both an exhilarating and sobering responsibility.

Ponder: How does the second creation story help to balance the first? Consider especially God’s command “to till and to keep” the garden—or as Ellen Davis translates these words, “to work and to watch.”

Pray: Forgive us for all the ways we have misinterpreted our job description, O God. Show us how to be better members of creation’s crew.

All Is Vanity?

Read: Ecclesiastes 1

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NRSV).

I was watching a murder mystery the other day. It was in Italian, but the subtitles made sense of it for me. Or at least, they made sense until the detective turned to the bereaved wife and assured her that the police would do their utmost to “frame” the murderer.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what the detective meant. “Convict” maybe, but not “frame.” Something had gotten lost in translation.

So it is with this famous verse from the book of Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew word at issue is hevel. The NRSV renders this as “vanity,” which makes it sound like something a narcissist would get up to. We even have a piece of furniture by that name which features—predictably—a mirror. I once re-painted an antique vanity for my daughter’s room. Before I put my paintbrush away, I couldn’t resist writing “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” on the bottom of the vanity’s drawer. Someday, she’ll find it and roll her eyes at her mother’s weakness for bad Old Testament jokes.

Of course, the English word “vanity” can also mean “the quality of being worthless or futile.” That seems to be the sense that the NIV wants to emphasize with this translation:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

While this rendering makes more sense than “vanity” in contemporary English, it couldn’t be more misleading. In fact, this translation actually twists the meaning of the Hebrew word into the exact opposite of what the Teacher is trying to convey.

Maybe it will help to know that the name “Abel” is based on this same Hebrew word: hevel. Abel, as you’ll recall, is the name of Cain’s ill-fated brother in Genesis 4. It’s the Bible’s first murder mystery, and Abel is the victim.

Ancient listeners must have felt a chill when they first heard Abel’s name. Like the Hebrew word on which his name is based, it means “ephemeral.” When you’re introduced to a character with that name, it’s a sign that you’d best not get too attached. He won’t be around for very long.

No reader of Genesis 4 would argue that Abel life is “meaningless.” In fact, one could argue that the brevity of his life makes it even more meaningful. We should cherish even more those things that are only with us for a short time.

This, I think, is what the Teacher is trying to tell us in this famous—but misunderstood—verse from Ecclesiastes. When he reminds us that “all is hevel,” he is telling us to savor our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver). Or to quote another poet, Robert Herrick:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,

Old Time is still a flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

Ponder: What do you think? Is life “meaningless” or “ephemeral”?

Pray: Teach us to treasure every moment of our short but precious lives, O God.

 

This reflection is the first in a new series called, “What a Difference a Word Makes.” Here is the series introduction:

If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you’ll know that it can be a humbling experience. For my sins, I’ve been trying to learn Italian. I once tried to order a cheese gelato when I was trying to order a strawberry gelato. The waitress’s face was my first clue that something was amiss. OK, so the only thing that formaggio and fragola have in common is the letter “f,” but I maintain that it was an understandable mistake.

Then there are the words that sound almost identical to the untrained ear but carry quite different meanings. If you’re trying to order pesce for dinner and you accidentally ask for pesche, you’ll get peaches instead of fish. And don’t even get me started on the “false friends”—words that are spelled exactly the same way in both languages but mean vastly different things. These are “false friends” because they lure the novice into a sense of false confidence. “Ah,” she says to herself. “I know what a piano is!” No, you don’t. This becomes obvious when someone tells you they live on the first piano. That’s how they refer to the floors of a building in Italy. Oops.

None of this should come as a surprise to me, since I’ve been translating Hebrew for over thirty years in my capacity as an Old Testament professor. Still, it has reminded me of just how much interpretation goes into translation.

In this series, I’d like to highlight a handful of words that may be translated in different ways, but which have very different meanings. This can make a huge difference for how we interpret a passage. In some cases, a bad choice can skew one’s entire theology. Words have power.

Curious? Then read this series. It’s called, “What a Difference a Word Makes.”

Enjoy!

Carol M. Bechtel

P.S. If you have been reading these blogs faithfully from the get-go, you will notice that I am revisiting a few of my favorite “teachable moments.” Consider it a review! I’m hoping that it will be useful to group all of these key passages in one place.

Baruch: As Time Goes By

Read: Jeremiah 40:1-6; Jeremiah 42-45

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, to you, O Baruch: You said, “Woe is me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest.” Thus you shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted—that is, the whole land. And you do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go” (Jeremiah 45:2-5, NRSV).

My name is Baruch.

Admit it. You’ve never heard of me.

There was a time when that would have bothered me. After all, nobody would remember much about my boss, Jeremiah, if I hadn’t been there to preserve his words for future generations. Now, however, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have served him—and God—all these years. As I look back on the first time he asked me to take dictation, I realize that it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Yes, he is my boss. But he’s also my teacher and my friend. I wouldn’t exchange that for the world.

Not that it’s been easy, mind you. Even now, as I sit in our modest apartment in Tahpanhes, Egypt, I’m amazed I’m still alive to tell the tale. Guilt by association is a “thing,” and even Jeremiah’s family tried to kill him at one point. Then there was the small matter of surviving the siege of Jerusalem. Jeremiah spent most of that confined in the court of the guard for undermining morale among other things. (King Zedekiah didn’t respond well to Jeremiah’s prophecies about Babylon winning.) And when the Babylonians finally took the city, it wasn’t at all clear where we’d end up. The Babylonians finally gave Jeremiah a choice: come to Babylon with the rest of the exiles or go your own way.

Jeremiah’s heart will always be in Judah, so he opted to stay. I opted to stay with him, but we ended up forced to follow a small remnant of the people into Egypt. This was NOT Jeremiah’s choice, I might add—and against the word he’d received from the LORD on the subject. But in spite of the people’s promises to abide by that word, here we are in Egypt. Ironically, we’re not far from the cities of Pithom and Ramses where our ancestors were enslaved so many years ago.

I’d hope for a personal exodus if it weren’t for a little prophecy that Jeremiah delivered just for me. He gave it to me back during the reign of Jehoiakim (of scroll-burning fame—don’t get me started on that particular memory!). But I’ve cherished it ever since. Every time all seems lost—both for the nation and for us as individuals—I recall those “tough love” words: “O Baruch…do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go.”

Strange words to treasure, you might say. I suppose. But as time goes by, I’ve learned that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. So, I’m grateful for God giving me that little personal promise.

As for Jeremiah, he hasn’t lost his gift for alienating everyone around him in the name of the LORD. He’s going to get himself killed one of these days. But I suppose that’s often the way when people insist on speaking truth to power.

So, I raise my glass to you, Jeremiah. Here’s looking at you, kid!

Ponder: How do Baruch’s imagined words strike you as you contemplate your own life in light of world events? How do his words about Jeremiah strike you as you remember contemporary prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Pray: Thank you for sending us prophets who speak truth to power. Give us the courage to listen to them.

Hagar’s Hope

Read: Genesis 16:1-16; 21:8-21; 25:7-18

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her. The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai” (Genesis 16:6-8 NRSV).

“When will Papa be home?”

The question came from my youngest granddaughter, Tikvah. She squirmed off my lap and ran to the open door of the tent.

“Just keep watching,” I said with as much patience as I could muster. She’d asked me the same question ten times a day for the last week. “It takes a long time to travel from Paran to Mamre and back. And you can’t expect him head straight home after burying his father, Abraham. He hasn’t seen that branch of his family for years. They’ll have a lot to talk about.”

Tikvah scowled at me, unconvinced.

“I’m sure he’s telling them all about you, Sweetheart,” I assured her. This prospect seemed to please her, and she skipped off to watch for her father with renewed enthusiasm.

Although I wouldn’t admit it to Tikvah, I was just as eager for Ishmael’s return. And I’d spent several restless nights wondering how the reunion was going. Still, when we’d received word of Abraham’s death, he could hardly ignore the news. I tried to reassure myself that Isaac would not have sent word if he hadn’t wanted Ishmael to come.

With a sigh, I reached again for the wool I had been winding before Tikvah had clambered up onto my lap. If you must fret, it’s best to keep your hands busy, I always say. And if I’m going to take a trip down memory lane, I try to focus on gratitude rather than grudges.

I have to admit, however, that the news of Abraham’s death has stirred up a lot of memories. Ours was a complicated relationship, to put it mildly. And don’t even get me started on my relationship with Sarah. Still, if it hadn’t been for those complicated—and yes, painful—years, I would not now be the matriarch I’ve become. My Ishmael has twelve (count them, twelve!) sons and almost as many daughters. The Hebrew God was serious, it seems, about making Ishmael a “great nation.”

So many babies—and so many names! It’s a challenge to come up with new ones at the pace they’re going! But Ishmael and his wife always consult me when it’s time to name a new baby. They know it’s a sensitive subject for me. My own name, “Hagar,” was given to me by my Hebrew masters. It means “forsaken,” and that’s often how I felt while I lived with them. Of course, it also means “flight,” which seems a pretty silly thing to name your slave. Sarah had no business acting surprised when I ran away—especially after the way she treated me!

But I said I was going to focus on gratitude rather than grudges, so I won’t go there.

Back to my interest in names. I suppose it really took hold when God appeared to me in the wilderness that first time. “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son,” the Hebrew God said to me. “You shall call his name Ishmael.” That means “God hears.” Well, I couldn’t argue. God had heard my cries out there in the wilderness, pregnant and afraid. I was so excited by both the rescue and the conversation (who expects God to show up for a talk?), that I gave God a name, too. “You are El-roi,” I proclaimed. “God who sees.” That God saw me—and that I saw God and lived to tell about it—are still a miracle to me.

When Ishmael brought me his youngest daughter, fresh from her mother’s womb, I knew just what I would name her. Tikvah. It means “hope.” Whenever I look at her, I remember how God gave me hope when I had none.

So, now you know why I have a soft spot in my heart for little Tikvah. Every time I see her, I know I may still be “Hagar,” but I’m not “forsaken.” I will always have hope.

Ponder: What do Hagar’s imagined reflections spark in you?

Pray: Name us as your own beloved children, merciful God. Then help us to treat one another as such.

Melchior’s Memoirs

Read: Matthew 2:1-19

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…. Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage” (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8 NRSV).

There is a fine line between wisdom and madness.

I became keenly aware of this on the trip west. I had set out with my friends and fellow star-gazers in search of an unusually bright star. At the time, it seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do. By the time we’d been on the road a few months, however, I wasn’t so sure. Was this trip wisdom or was it madness?

Judging by what our servants were whispering behind their hands, I had a pretty good idea what they thought. Even my camel seemed to have an opinion, and it wasn’t flattering.

We’d been told (I can’t divulge how) that this star would lead us to “the child born to be king of the Jews.” So, when we got to Jerusalem, it made sense to us to ask around. After all, wouldn’t the Jews themselves know?

Oddly, however, they didn’t. King Herod consulted with some of his own wise guys and sent us off to the little town of Bethlehem. He seemed especially eager for us to find the child. At the time, I assumed it was because he, too, wanted to pay him homage. In retrospect, I realize he had more sinister motives.

It seems we were not so wise as we thought.

But off we went to Bethlehem, bearing gifts that turned out to be fabulously impractical. In our own defense, however, how could we have known where the star was leading us? Which of us—for all our wisdom—could have guessed that we would find the child in a humble house and not a palace? His parents looked a bit startled when we pulled out the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but to their credit, they took it in stride. I got the sense this wasn’t the first time they’d had to deal with the unexpected.

Thank God we were warned not to report back to Herod. Even so, news of his murderous rampage reached us on the road home. It was madness to trust him. While I’m unspeakably relieved that the child-king escaped, I’ll carry the guilt of those slaughtered children to my grave. If only we’d been wiser wise men we would have been less naïve about his intentions.

I had a lot of time to think on the journey home, and I came to a few important conclusions. First, I realize now that true wealth is not found in a palace. Second, that true power is expressed in selflessness. Third, that true wisdom is born from humility.

So, it seems I returned to my country a much wiser man than I was when I left. The moment I got back I founded an orphanage. I find it much more fulfilling than star-gazing, and I have the strangest sense that it’s what the child-king would want me to do.

Ponder: What part of Melchior’s imagined memoir speaks most powerfully to you? How do his reflections shed light on current events?

Pray: As so many children pay the price of madness, grant us the wisdom to stop the slaughter.

What Mary Might Have Pondered

Read: Luke 1:26-56 and 2:1-20

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2:15-20, NRSV).

You know how it is. Something incredible happens, and the next day your brain tries to convince you that it didn’t really happen.

That’s sort of what it was like after the angel Gabriel showed up to tell me that I would bear the One for whom we’ve been waiting. I had the presence of mind to point out to him that I was a virgin, but that didn’t deter him. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he said, swatting away my question as if it were a pesky fly. “The power of the Most High will overshadow you;  therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

Oh, well then, I remember thinking. That explains it all

Still, when the Angel Gabriel is standing there waiting for a response, it’s best to say “yes” and leave any unanswered questions for later.

As the weeks passed, I decided I must have dreamed it. But then the morning sickness started. Then my cousin Elizabeth showed up. The minute I saw her obviously pregnant profile I remembered what Gabriel had said about how she was expecting as well (at her age!), and how “nothing will be impossible with God.” When Elizabeth greeted me as the “mother of my Lord,”  I knew for sure it hadn’t been a dream. As if to confirm that thought, I suddenly burst into a song I didn’t know I knew. It was a song about how all generations would call me blessed. But even more importantly, it was a song about how this child would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. How he would bring down the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty. How he was the answer to our people’s prayers.

At a certain point, you just have to get used to an idea, even if it does seem too incredible to be true.

So, when the shepherds showed up just after Jesus was born, I heard their words as a welcome confirmation of what I already knew. It was something of a relief to know that the angels were spreading the word to someone other than my immediate family.

All this is to say that God has given me a great deal to think about. Oddly, however, I also find myself pondering a story about our ancestor Moses. Do you remember the story about him hearing God’s voice from the middle of a burning bush? A bush that burned, but was not “consumed” by the fire?

I wonder if Moses woke up the next day wondering if he’d dreamed that! I’ll bet he couldn’t stop thinking about it, even so. And I can’t stop thinking about it either. It occurs to me that I am like that burning bush. Any other human who carried the Son of God in her arms—to say nothing of her womb—would surely burn to ash. Yet, I haven’t.

At a certain point, you just have to get used to an idea, even if it does seem too incredible to be true.

Ponder: Fourth-century church father, Gregory of Nyssa, was the first person to connect Mary to the story of the burning bush. Later, Christian artists picked up on the connection. An icon of Mary Mother of God as the burning bush hangs at St. Catherin’s monastery at Mt. Sinai. How does the connection between these two stories enrich the way you “ponder” the incarnation?

Pray: Light of light, yet born of Mary, we worship and adore you.

A Shepherd’s Tale

Read: Luke 2:8-18

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:8-14).

Shepherds get a lot of time to think. But if I had an eternity to think about what happened that night, I don’t think it would be enough to get my head around it. And I only experienced the first part. Somebody had to stay with the sheep, after all.

You may think I was disappointed, and you’d be partially right. But I was also relieved. That first angel was bad enough, but then the whole sky was filled with them. It was deafening. It was dazzling. It was terrifying.

I don’t even remember falling to the ground, but that’s where I was when the angels went back to wherever it was they came from. For a minute, I tried to convince myself that it hadn’t happened. But then I looked around and realized that all the other shepherds—including my father—were also sitting on the hillside staring off into the sky with their mouths hanging open.

Oddly enough, the sheep didn’t seem particularly upset. You’d have thought they would have scattered like—well—sheep. But they didn’t. They just got on with their sheepy business as if heavenly hosts were part of their nightly routine. A few of the ewes were in labor, so you can’t blame them for just getting on with it, I suppose. But still. I guess it was a night for miracles.

My father called everyone together to confer about what we should do. It didn’t take long for a consensus to emerge. “Let us go now to Bethlehem,” my dad said, “and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Then he looked gently at me and said, “Except for you, son. You stay with the sheep.” He must have read the expression on my face as disappointment because he quickly added, “We’ll tell you all about it. I promise!”

Like I say, I was more relieved than disappointed. (My legs still felt like they were made of wool.) And to be honest, I was also a little proud that he trusted me with the job. Lambing time is serious business.

It was a long night, and I helped deliver three healthy lambs. I didn’t have much time to wonder about what the rest of the shepherds discovered in Bethlehem. But when they rushed back just before dawn, my dad came straight over and told me all about it. Everything was just as the angel had said it would be. They’d found a young couple rejoicing over their newborn baby who was sound asleep in a manger.

I just smiled and gave the newborn lamb I was holding a rub with some fresh straw.

“What are you smiling about,” my dad asked. “Aren’t you disappointed you didn’t get to meet the Messiah?”

“Sure, I suppose,” I replied. “But I think the Messiah might understand that a good shepherd has to give up a lot for the sake of his sheep.”

Now it was my dad’s turn to smile. “I’m proud of you, son,” he said, ruffling my hair in the way that he does. “You’re a very good shepherd.”

Ponder: What does this imagined episode help you to notice about Luke’s familiar story? What does it say about the Messiah that the “first noel” was to “certain poor shepherds?”

Pray: May we never grow numb to the wonders of this story.