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Saturday, December 29, 2007

…And a Half

I can’t remember the last time I really thought about how long six months were, but I think it was probably when I was very little and eagerly awaited the day each year when I could correct people “I’m not five. I’m five and a half”. But it has been a long time since half a year mattered to me. For most of my life, the years have been divided by school. First semester, break, second semester, summer, new grade. But now, I’m looking at a new measurement. Six months. Six months away from my family. Six months away from my friends. Six months away from my country. And suddenly, the half of a year I used to look forward to seems like a very, very, long time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Three Christmas Stories (Part Three)

While Shepherds Watched

This is different from the other two stories. For one, it happened just a few weeks ago. As for the other difference, you’ll just have to bear with me. I’ll explain why I chose to include this story at the end.

I’ve been a childcare worker at a church all semester, and all year the children have looked forward to the beginning of Advent and the Christmas season. Finally, Advent began, and all the Christmas decorations came out, including a Playmobile nativity set in my classroom. One of the four year olds in my class took to it right away, and started to set it up. It had a lot of pieces, like boxes for the three Wise Men’s gifts and a little cauldron that hung over a fire. When I was able, I would help her manipulate the tiny pieces, and walk her through the Christmas story as we put the set together.

Finally, after a small debate about whether or not Joseph was one of the Magi, the whole scene was put together. Mary and Joseph stood by Baby Jesus, the Wise Men, tired from their journey, sat on the ground with their cloaks set next to them, and the Angel rested on a log, wearing one of the Magi’s crowns. The shepherds, who we decided had also had a long trip, were gathered together around the cauldron and the fire.

The four-year-old surveyed the scene and frowned. She obviously thought something was missing. After a moment, her faced lit up, and she declared “They had lamb for dinner!” Then, much to the horror of the other teacher in the room, she picked up one of the lambs and placed it in the cauldron.

So, why did I think this was a good story to tell on Christmas? Because I’ve realized how easily we romanticize the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph in the pristine stable, the gentle animals serenely approaching the manger, cute little sheep frolicking around. Even the word “manger” sounds romantic to our ears. I like how the Cotton Patch Gospel translates “manger”. They say “apple box”. The fact is, the stable was smelly, Mary was probably exhausted, and Joseph was most likely terrified for the well-being of his wife and child. And if the shepherds were hungry, well, that’s part of why they raised sheep in the first place. I doubt there was a sheep barbeque at the actual nativity, but one little girl’s candid behavior helped me to remember the true extent of the humility of the Holy birth.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Three Christmas Stories* (Part Two)

Away in a Manger

Over the years, it has somehow happened that the task of setting up our crèche has fallen to me. It’s a medium size nativity set with a little stable, complete with a hayloft. The pieces we have are: Mary, Joseph, a manger with Baby Jesus (two pieces), an Angel, the Three Wise Men, two pipers, a shepherd, two sheep, a cow, and a donkey. So maybe it’s a little bigger than “medium”. Either way, every year I set up the crèche and then place Baby Jesus behind it, to be set out on Christmas Eve.

Another semi-tradition at our house is a Christmas party that usually takes place at the beginning of December. After years of constantly having to explain to guests where Baby Jesus was, we finally started to set him out on the day of the party. But one year, when I reached behind the crèche, I didn’t fell anything. I checked again. Nothing. I lifted up the stable. Nothing. I dug threw the pine needles strewn across the table. Still nothing. Somehow, between setting up the crèche and the day of the party, I had lost Baby Jesus.

Our crèche, while not an antique, is still very old, and it’s hard to find pieces for it, especially just one. We found the whole set at a store, but as we were only missing one piece (albeit the most important one!), we decided to just keep looking and hope Baby Jesus showed up. Yet as Christmas drew closer and closer, it began to seem less and less likely that we would have a complete nativity.

Finally, it was Christmas Eve, and in our outdoor nativity, Baby Jesus was safe in his manger. Indoors, however, it was a different story. There was even talk of just taking down the crèche. After all, Jesus was the whole point of the thing.

Well, church was over, and we were about to get ready for bed (the crèche was still set up), when the doorbell rang. We looked out the window, and our neighbors from a block over were standing outside, holding a box. Opening the door, my dad invited them in, but they said they couldn’t stay. They just wanted to give us something. My dad took the box, and we all gathered around, eager to see what was inside. He opened it, and there, nestled in a layer of tissue paper, was Baby Jesus, one that matched our set. Somehow, our neighbors had learned that we had lost the piece, and they had managed to find the exact same one.

It seems no matter what else happens in our house during the Holiday season, Jesus always manages to arrive right on time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Three Christmas Stories* (Part 1)

Do You See What I See?

When I was about 10 years old, my grandfather, Papa, made a life-size wooden nativity set for my family. He cut and painted the whole thing himself—Mary, Joseph, a manger, and three camels for the Wise Men. The Wise Men themselves were never finished, but we set out the camels every year anyways, one lying down, and two standing up (when they didn’t get blown over by the wind).

It’s an old tradition in my family, pre-dating the wooden nativity, to never set out Baby Jesus until Christmas Eve. An old doll of mine with short, curly hair was kept long after I stopped playing with dolls for the purpose of fulfilling this most important role. Wrapped in a blue cloth, we stored the doll in the garage with the nativity set. There it would stay until we returned home after the Christmas Eve service and placed it in the wooden manger. Except for the year of our Christmas Gift.

That year, we put the nativity set out as always, with the addition of a lighted Angel and a star of Christmas tree lights that my dad was quite proud of. When we arrived back home, the neighborhood was dark except for the glow of the luminaries that lined the streets. As we pulled into our driveway, the headlights of our car illuminated the nativity scene for a brief moment, revealing that the two stubborn camels had once again laid down to rest. And yet, I thought, something else seemed different too.

We got out of the car and my bother and I went to right the camels. And that’s when we saw it. There, under the Christmas-light star, was a Baby, wrapped up in a dish towel in his manger.

It wasn’t until Christmas day that we learned what had happened. Our neighbor’s grand daughter had been over the day before to celebrate Christmas with her grandparents. Our yards are adjacent, and a life-size nativity has a powerful draw when you’re only five. Coming over to investigate, the girl saw that we didn’t have a Baby Jesus. She went back to her grandparents’ house and told them of this problem. Then, she took one of her dolls, wrapped it in the closest thing to swaddling clothes that she could find, and put it in our manger. And that five-year-old girl left her own doll there overnight, just to ensure that Baby Jesus would be there on Christmas morning.


*Disclaimer: While these stories are true, there may be some embellishment (partly because I was pretty young when two of these events happened and had to make some things up to fill in the gaps in my memory).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Braid

I remember very little of high school geometry, but every now and then a lesson comes back to me. Like planes. A single plane can be drawn between any three points, even if those three points are on different levels. Even if one point is England, one in Spain, and one in the U.S.

“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecc. 4:12b, NIV)

Friday, December 7, 2007

How the Greeks Killed Latin

(According to the owner of Paupoli’s)

As everyone knows, the Romans conquered the Greeks and, like always, enslaved them. The Romans then proceeded to make the enslaved Greeks their teachers, which was their big mistake. The Greeks, in order to avenge themselves upon the Romans, taught and wrote only in their native tongue. Consequently, the Latin language slowly dissolved into Greek.

Now for the second half of the story: Why there are two forms of Greek—ancient and modern. After converting the Romans to speaking their language, the Greeks discovered that they no longer could use their Greek to communicate without the Romans being able to understand it. So they created a second language, closely related to Greek, but different enough that Greek-speaking Romans couldn’t understand it. And that was the origin of modern Greek.