“. . . for unto us a child is born” or what constitutes a miracle?

Gold, frankincense, myrrh. Three wise men from the Orient on camels followed a star that led them to a manger in Jerusalem. There, a newborn lay in the arms of his virgin mother surrounded by animals – most likely cows, sheep, and a donkey.

RH-Wisemen2We do not know definitely where the men came from or even if they were only three. Most Biblical scholars say they would have come from Persia (Iran) and been followers of Zoroastrianism. As wise men, i.e. magi, they would have been of an educated class steeped in the belief that a person of holy origin was on his way. It was a widespread belief of the time. People were on the alert.

Since only three gifts were mentioned – glorious as they were! – it is usually assumed only three men came to the manger even though more learned men would have been in the region and vigilant for the arrival of a baby of the highest importance.

1-icon-of-the-nativity-juliet-venterShepherds also came to the manger, but they were from nearby fields where they were “keeping watch over their sheep by night.” An angel appeared to them and told them not to be afraid, but instead to rejoice for “This day in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is the messiah, the Lord.”

The shepherds went to Jerusalem where they found a babe lying in a manger, just as the angels told them they would.

I sense a timing issue. The shepherds were nearby, but for the wise men to arrive while Jesus was still in the manger, they either started following the star before he was born, or were, in fact, just over in the next village, or were beamed up. Given the appearance of angels, beaming up seems possible, as in “Beam me up, Scotty.”

It is a beautiful story of hope and wonder, one laden with miracles.

One star guided the way of three men 2000 years ago in a cosmos of more than 100 billion galaxies with an estimated 300 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, which is a relatively small galaxy but the one from which we can observe a universe with a radius of 13.7 billion light years expanding at an accelerating rate of 46 miles per second per megaparsec* and laden with black holes that attract anything near them into them, including galaxies, to potentially parallel cosmos that we cannot see but that, like ours, move through folding time warps and space twists, all of which is made of atoms that mimic really wild solar systems but are too infinitesimal to measure, further complicated by that atoms behave in uncertain ways influenced by the expectations of their observers and that atoms are made of even smaller elements called hadrons that are made of quarks that are divided into categories named up, down, strange, bottom, top, and charm, which may indicate quarks are made of even smaller elements, and in any case we know that quarks have been here since the beginning of everything 13.8 billion years ago when a single point exploded in a big bang and, from quarks to cosmos, all of it is held together by unseen forces named the strong force and the weak force that hold quarks together to make neutrons and protons that make atom nuclei, while magnetic and gravitation forces hold the earth together and hold humans on it.

Beaming up is a piece of cake in comparison.


Yet, so far as we know the cosmos doesn’t deal with human feelings of hope, joy, fear, guilt, or wonder. It does not ponder itself except possibly through entities like us, and surely it has no need for miracles, being itself beyond comprehension.

It is we who require miracles and long for what is just beyond our comprehension. Just beyond. We like our miracles guiding star-size, manger-size, angel-size, virgin-birth size. We like our miracles to bring joy and create wonder. That is an observable truth, and it is a fine truth, and it is a start. We should all be guided more often by the stars.


*A megaparsec is the distance of 3 million light years. Hence, every distance of 3 million light years in the cosmos expands by approximately 46 miles every second. 


THE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT: salvation revisited

Perhaps I was 10, certainly no older, and I longed to be saved. I wanted Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, the entire trinity, to inhabit me – not Mary, that was the Catholics’ thing – and lift me out of Iowa’s “Lord God Almighty, the flatness does go on, doesn’t it?” landscape. I wanted to soar, to be chosen. I wanted my cells burst and my mind split in two “… or more gathered in His name.” I was ready to give my all but I needed help. I needed proof. I needed evidence.

I had been asking God to show Himself to me since before I could write anything much beyond my name. Well, I could write my own name and my brother’s name, and I knew that God was spelled “G O D.” My few words were all in caps because that’s all I knew. I was four years old.

I put a paper and a Funk’s G Hybrid pencil – my father sold their seed corn – on my night stand each night and asked God to write “G O D” on it. After a year or so, I asked Him to just make a mark on the paper. I was older now and understood He couldn’t let others know He played favorites, He couldn’t make His preference for me known, so if He could just please draw a line, or a squiggle, I would know it was Him even as He was assured I couldn’t go bragging on it to others.

By age six all I asked was that He move the pencil. I’d memorized the position. By age seven I took a break from God searching.

But the urge to be saved remained. A Bible fell open once – maybe when I was 8 or 9 – to some verse about “Oh, ye, of little faith.” It gave me a moment’s consideration, but not for very long. I didn’t need chastisement, I needed visitation.

country church, church, old church,

The West Fork Evangelical United Brethren Church in Franklin County, Iowa was 2 1/2 miles from our farm. It was wooden, white, had a steeple of sorts, a bell rung by a long rope that hung in the entry. You entered by walking up concrete steps – or a side door if you were going down to the Sunday school classes in the basement.

I would be delivered to Sunday school and picked up afterwards by my mother, though sometimes she and I stayed for Sunday services. By the time I was 13, I played the church piano for most services, and later the organ when we got a Wurlitzer. Or my brother played the piano and I played the flute. Or I played the piano or organ and my brother sang. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My father only went to church on Christmas Eve, possibly Easter, as I remember it. We did, though, have a painting of Jesus at the last supper painted on a polished slice of wood (the bark still on it) hanging in the dining room. We never prayed, and never discussed religion.

It was I who secretly longed. Or if anyone else longed, it was an even better kept secret since no one in our house talked with anyone else.

In principle, I wasn’t asking specifically to be saved on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful night just as it was. Every year the men would bring in a tree so high it almost touched the ceiling. Underneath were mounds of presents, and apples and oranges and walnuts for everyone. We sang Christmas carols, lights shaped like candles were in each window, and the youngest children were angels, and shepherds, and wise men, and Joseph and Mary.

The year I was saved, I was too old for costumes. I had been given a poem to recite, a rather long one as I remember.

To prepare for this Hallmark night – it always snowed – I took a bath, rubbed my body with Lanolin Plus (a yellow viscous lotion), put on my best dress, and a pair of black Mary Jane shoes.

The moment of salvation was after my poem, about an hour into the program. I was in the third row of pews. Smaller children fidgeted around me.

Salvation crept in, tickled itself into my awareness, and grew into a crescendo of waves. My life was being transformed right then, right there! I was immobile, awe-struck. The Holy Ghost had scanned that church from somewhere near the top of that tree and selected me. God knew, I had been waiting.

My visitation lasted through the rest of the pageant and songs and prayers and the handing out of fruit and nuts – which I declined to do, feeling this was a personal quiet thing, not to be trashed by motion. Besides we were not a church of holy rollers but of quiet Germans and a few Dutch. We did not make spectacles.

When it was time to leave, I made my way to the doors trying not to touch anyone and emerged into the night and annual Christmas Eve snow that always wafted and never blew. It was not until I was in the back seat of the Chevy, riding home in the dark, that I realized salvation was starting to itch.

I went to my room, took off my cloths, and saw hives over my entire body. I waited until everyone was through in the bathroom and went in, locked the door, and soaked in the tub, silent. My mother knocked and asked if I was okay. I said, “I just wanted to take a bath.”

Lanolin has not touched my body since then so far as I know, . . . but the Holy Spirit still lingers in the vicinity.