There are two sides to every story.
This adage popped to mind this week during another adventure safari through Twitter. These days, there’s a lot of low brush to fight through on my social medium of choice. I don’t have strong opinions on Elon’s blood-letting takeover or Snoop’s poll-proposing management or all the many (post-determining) “this-may-be-the-end” farewells.
I, for one, hope the patient makes it (I can’t take any more deaths). Twitter is for readers. And this week I read that there are two sides to every story.
Or nine sides.
Likely, I’m late to this image, but floating around the Tesla debtor-colony is a take on the classic “glass half-full” v. “glass half-empty” challenge. Added to the ol’ Optimist-Pessimist spectrum are not additional points, but new lines of thought. The Realist (it’s a “glass of water”) battles the Surrealist (with a Moses-push of the water up and on its side). The Relativist (seeing it both half-empty and half-full) and the Physicist (seeing it both as a collection of gas and liquid). The Utopist (with water floating to the top, but empty below the surface) doubting the Skepticist (with its claim that the water itself is an illusion). Finally, paintbrush cleaning itself, is the Artist, who could also go by the name of the Pragmatist—presenting another stretched pairing.
Staring at a half-filled glass of water, the answer depends on the angle. There are two sides to every story. Such is our season.
So this is Christmas.
Unless you’re a Catholic church music director, you might miss the liturgical options this weekend. Attendance at Christmas Mass may primarily come from the 4:00 PM Christmas Eve comers—the Mass of the sugar-plum-fairy-cute children and the sharpened elbow pew defenders—but it’s not the only liturgy. The official texts provide for four options: Christmas at Vigil, Night, Dawn, and Day—each with its own set of readings. Usually pastors choose a singular option and stick with it throughout the festivities—four homilies and Psalm settings and hymn variations come with certain mental health and employee retention risks—but the options can be lenses for the one picture.
Is the manger half-full or half-empty?
The Mass at Night might be for you, taking the common water-glass question and presenting it to the most common nativity story. Luke 2:1–14 explains that the bureaucratic census got Joseph (apparently a Marriot Pewter Club member) and Mary (apparently a heavily pregnant donkey rider) to Bethlehem. The inn becomes a barnyard. The barnyard becomes a delivery room. The delivery room becomes a greeting house? The last movement takes the half-empty moments and shakes them up, as shepherds receive an angelic announcement and then find the heavenly flood lights flipped on. “Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” Animal smells, bodily fluid, taking (but not holding) reservations. Maybe: many half-empty moments still can make an over-filled glass.
Is the manger for Realists or Surrealists?
The Vigil Mass is for you. Warning, like this conversation, no one chooses this reading. The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew deploys seventeen genealogy verses as its opening hook. X became the father of Y; Y became the father of Z; Z became the father of a whole bunch of unpronounceable people until we get to Jesus. If babies are born at Touro, messiahs are born from patience.
But amid the sea of “too real,” something surreal happens. The repetitive pattern is broken. “Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez became the father of . . . .” Wait a minute. Tamar?
Four women are thrown into the mix. Four women with four crazy stories. Tamar’s? She was just your run-of-the-mill daughter-in-law. Spurned by her deceased husband’s family, Tamar did the natural thing: she dresses as a prostitute and conceives her father-in-law’s child. Y’all, we’re a DNA-reveal away from Maury Povich. And Jesus comes from that line. Sur-real.
Is the manger Utopia or Skeptic-land?
Wake up early for the Mass at Dawn to find out. The continuation of Luke’s gospel traces the shepherds’s tracks from field to barnyard. As the angelic night-lights dim, the shepherds readjust their eyes: “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing . . .” Might as well check it out, huh? But it’s not just skepticism sending them; it was a galaxy of God-popping lights that brought a message “which the Lord has made known to us.”
Utopia. And the home for a few farm animals. With so many images, Luke paints Mary with the proper outlook: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
Is the manger home of the Relativist or the Physicist?
The Mass during the Day readings get us into a heady space. Matthew starts with a reading of the family tree, John with philosophy. “In the beginning was the Word,” John declares. “And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He continues, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
I thought I was showing up for a creche, not an undergraduate class. For John, the image of “the Word” informs listeners of the divine action. Looking out on a world thousands of years separated from this activity, we can find some counter-narratives. Who’s to say the half-empty and half-full are any different, we can nod along with the Relativists. And if there is a difference—or any point to this mortal-coil shuffle—maybe it’s just the raw datapoints, the way we play Physicist, keeping cold facts handy for the uncertainty of it all.
Or maybe, there’s a deeper truth, a more tender truth still here.
I chose this philosophical text for my grandfather’s funeral. There’s something about the Word becoming flesh that fit. Our words, our texts, our conversations carry things with them. Multiple stories, many experiences, pain and confusion and joy. At their best, our words help others with their own carrying. Thus, at our best, words carry something of the divine.
There are two sides to every story. Or four readings. Or nine glasses of water.
And probably a few bathroom breaks in between.
We have carried much this year.
This Christmas we can train our eyes to capture a few more lines of sight—and hopefully help others carry their pictures a bit better in the process.
Speaking of half-full or half-empty, how ‘bout them Saints? Saturday’s contest in Cleveland will be cold. To get yourself prepared for the elements, review the tape (or at least these two cued-up plays) from the Saints 1989 victory in Buffalo.