Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)
Over the weekend my son attended a Christmas party at church, leaving the remaining members of the family two hours of time with which to get dinner. With big brother being at a party, little sister was feeling on the outs – so we made a special evening of it and went to one of those Japanese places where they prepare the food on a hibachi grill right in front of you. Honestly, I think little sister got the better end of the deal that night.
The chef that evening gave us quite a show, not to mention a great meal. He sliced the meat deftly, twirled his utensils with flare, made the grill sizzle and flame, warming our faces just long enough to feel really good. It was an ordinary onion, however, that proved his skill.
The onion had already been sliced and the first two slices were quickly chopped into small pieces. With the third slice he did something different. He separated the concentric circles of onion, one from the other and stacked them up, from large to small, creating a little onion mountain. Then, using a certain blend of oils and a match, he caused the onion mountain to shoot up a flame. Once the flame had died, the mountain continued to pour forth smoke – an onion volcano.
What impressed me most about this was the imagination required to include this in the preparation of the meal. It is one thing to grill an onion. It’s quite another to make an onion volcano that spouts flame and smoke. Most of us look at an onion as something to eat or something to peel and slice. Few of us see a volcano. When it comes to onions we lack imagination.
Whenever we hear the story of the angel’s announcement to Mary several words come to mind. We think of Mary’s faith, her willingness to trust God and submit herself to what God was doing. We think of Mary’s courage, her acceptance of what would certainly be regarded as shameful, the pregnancy of a young unmarried woman. What we rarely think of is Mary’s imagination.
Imagination is not our capacity to make up things that are not true. Imagination is our capacity to know truth that lies beyond what we can see. Barbara Brown Taylor explains it this way:
It is an imaginative enterprise, in which I must first of all give up the notion that I know what I am looking at when I look at the world. I do not know. All I know is that there is always more than meets the eye and that if I want to see truly I must be willing to look beyond the appearance of things into the depth of things . . . a direct gaze often misses what may be glimpsed at the corner of they eye.*
Christmas engages our imaginations. We see this most clearly in small children. They are filled with wonder and anticipation – most of which surrounds Santa Claus and his journey around the world in the dark of night on Christmas Eve.
But eventually children become grown ups, and the imagination gets bleached out of Christmas. This is regrettable because imagination isn’t about elves and reindeer. Imagination allows us to hear the biblical story as it should be heard. God is at work around us in ways that elude a direct gaze. Miracles are happening in ordinary places (stables) among the most ordinary people (Shepherds, a young girl and a carpenter).
And God still work in these ways. What ordinariness surrounds you today? What familiar routines will you repeat this week in celebration of Christmas? What we require more than a new routine is simply imagination. An onion made a volcano. A virgin made the mother of the messiah. And miracles unfolding all around you right now.
O God, grant me the grace of an active imagination. Help me to see what’s in front of me in ways that have eluded me in the past. Give me enough imagination to love my neighbors and co-workers as people made in your image. Give me imagination to see this season as more than an economic concern or a family tradition. Teach me to see what you are doing in this world and make bold to take part in it. Amen.
(* Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p. 49)