The past month we have been enjoying the familiar Christmas stories in church, in books and in the media. So many familiar presentations that at times we can almost say each word out loud from memory. For me, the movie “White Christmas” takes me back to high school in snowy Western New York. I am often troubled by the raw nature of “It’s A Wonderful Life” depicting hard New England life in tough times. (It helps a bit to know now that Jimmy Stewart was processing his WWII PTSD in his acting.)
All of our versions of the Bible story of the scholars who come with gifts for the new king include the intriguing aspect of a visitation or intuition instructing them not to travel home through Jerusalem the way they had arrived. Listening to these voices that change our plans can be very important.
Once or twice we get to sing the hymn from the tag end of the story, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”. These characters always show up at the end of the Life Nativity or on a low Sunday after Christmas. Our imagination runs wild in concert with our life stories as we read the few verses in Matthew 2 which describe the Scholars from the East. No mention of three either men or women just a description of the three gifts that this group brought with them. They are exotic, they are a costume challenge (what a great use of those bathrobes in the closet!)
The imaginations of authors have always been intrigued by this bit of scripture. We have that familiar hymn “We Three Kings” with it’s unusual minor key and rhythm designed to bring images of deserts and camels. Barbara Brown Taylor has a new illustrated story book Home by Another Way which adds great detail and flavor to all the characters so familiar in this story. Henry van Dyke wrote a challenging take on the story in 1895 titled The Story of the Other Wise Man. Van Dyke tells the story of the “fourth” scholar who was delayed meeting the other “three” and spends the next 30 years following in search of the new king born that night in Bethlehem.
Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” has the opportunity to experience an alternative to his expected life story. The scholars visiting Bethlehem are inspired/led to take a different road on their journey home. A challenge for each of us is to be open or aware of different paths or endings to our stories. I was challenged this week by this video clip on Facebook. Amanda Riggan is a young woman who works as a FedEx delivery person. At the beginning of a busy day she makes a delivery to a woman in tears. They have a quick conversation and after continuing her route for some time Amanda feels compelled to return to pray with and for the woman in a tough life situation. Amanda describes how Going Another Way is not always the first reaction or an easy reaction but is indeed a response in faith.
Be prepared to be challenged to act a different way in this new year. Enjoy being washed in the familiar winter stories. Look forward to longer days and spring time on the horizon. But be ready to listen to that voice (not always like Francis the Angel who is able to demonstrate an alternative life), sometimes like the dream (those midnight subconscious times of working out life’s problems) or the voice that says “go back and pray”.
Rev. Peter Surgenor is a retired minister member of Hudson River Presbytery living in Newburgh, NY. He is an active Habitat for Humanity volunteer in Newburgh with his wife Rev. Cathy Surgenor. Peter and Cathy have six grandchildren spread between Peekskill and Helena, MT.