Imagine the scene: middle school youth crowded around a banner, coloring a giant red dragon that hovers over the edge of a castle. Then keep in mind their assignment is to create the background for the Christmas pageant. The pastor is moving from room to room, assisting the first graders with their Christmas carol, the older children with their costume, then discovers this scene, bringing dragons into the manger.
Here be dragons. It's one of my favorite phrases, written on maps to indicate those areas as yet uncharted, unexplored, and presumed dangerous. If we're honest, it's the kind of thing that ought to be written on the cover of every Bible.
As far as I know, no dragons appear in the nativity of the Christ directly. But they are not absent from Scripture, making appearances at the very least in Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Sirach, and Revelation. There are dragons in the neighborhood, even if they do not make a direct appearance in the gospels.
But we might say, together with J.R.R. Tolkien, It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.
So what is the live dragon in the Christmas story? What do these youth in their artistic wisdom have to teach us?
I am reminded that there is a good deal of myth in the birth narratives of the Christ. There are many levels of complexity. Echoes of ancient Scripture make it into the telling of the birth, with direct quotations from Isaiah and other prophetic books (see Matthew 1:23, 2:6 and 2:15, for example). But these echoes are made more complex by their journey through multiple languages and cultures. As just one example, the word virgin in Matthew 1:23 is an echo of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) rather than a direct translation of the Hebrew. So Jesus is born of a virgin in Greek, but of a maiden in Hebrew.
This both matters and no longer matters. Mary is either or both, just as the Scripture in Hebrew or Greek is still Scripture. But why, you might ask? Well, for my money, I'll take a Scripture with an historical context over a book fallen from the sky any day of the week. I like my ancient texts flavored with history and complexity. They need to have been somewhere, handled by someone, affected by things.
Only in this way are they Scripture. So if you come to the Christ seeking answers like the wise men, you end up in the same place they did: With an existential invitation to worship, enter into relationship, and remain with the mystery. There's no tract to take home, a short little book length synopsis with all the answers. Instead, the faith, inasmuch as we are to carry it from generation to generation, or country to country, or planet to planet, will develop and get worked out in community.
These are our dragons.
So how is this a Christmas letter? Well, this has been quite a year. There's been enough in the news, in our lives, on the Twitters and the Facebooks, to distract us from truly ancient texts. It's hard to lean into old books when new RSS feeds arrive daily. But we are now in the moment when we recognize that once again this Christ shapes time for us, brings us to the marking of our weeks and our years. Christ forms the very map of how we live, and does so in such a way that we can never explore it all.
Scripture is not to be read once and fully fathomed. It's a text for a lifetime, to be read in a community of trust and hope that embraces its complexity and contradictions, not in order to reject it, but to grow with it.
I think that's the kind of faith community we are, or at least the kind of faith community I hope to cultivate. And then that is who Christ is among us also. Christ is for a lifetime, a Messiah to be met in a community of trust and hope that embraces the complexity of having faith in this Christ.
I don't know what you think of dragons, but let me encourage you to consider that they live rather close to Christ. And every community that lives close to Christ not only fears dragons less but becomes somewhat like the dragons. The powers of this world, encountering real community in Christ, mark the territory near the startling kingdom of God they discover, with the words, "Here be dragons."
The best Christian communities are this polis, this kingdom, this politics and alternative community, with scales hard and tempered enough to take the heat, and a fire that burns in the belly, yet gentle enough to lie down by the infant and rest.
Merry Christmas. If you're in the neighborhood, join us for Christmas Eve worship at 4:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. Dragons will be included in the calculations.