I’ve always had a great interest in urban legends—the kind of stories that are told and retold at water coolers and in cafeterias, always relating the real-life experience of “a friend of a friend,” involving some perfect poetic justice (or injustice), ultra-ironic twist, or unbelievable tragedy. I even have several books on the subject—both simple collections of these tales (I’ll never forget the puzzled look on one parishioner’s face when she saw the book The Baby on the Car Roof on my shelf) and analyses of this particular form of American tall tale and why we love telling these stories (you know, like the one where the family dog kills the neighbor’s rabbit and, not wanting to own up to what he’s done, the family washes, blow-dries, and otherwise repairs the little thing before spiriting it back into its hutch under cover of darkness…only to learn that the rabbit had died two days earlier of natural causes.)
Chalk this up as yet another fun thing that the Internet has pretty much ruined. While plenty of urban legends are now forwarded via e-mail, people are also far more skeptical about these stories. A quick Google search reveals that hundreds of other people have “a friend of a friend” who experienced the very same thing! And, of course, a quick visit to snopes.com can refute even the most delicious too-good-to-be-true story. And yet, new urban legends continue to pop up and old ones continue to be retold, because we really do love our stories.
One of my favorites has always been the account of a police detective who rose through the ranks of the NYPD. He had a natural talent for evidence collecting and cataloging, which he cultivated over decades, developing his own meticulous systems. In fact, he had never seen a perp go free because of mishandled evidence and he always seemed to spot exactly the right smoking gun at the crime scene (although it was rarely an actual smoking gun). By the time he reached retirement age, this guy was a world-famous authority on the subject. And so he took up a teaching post at a NYU in their forensics and criminology program. Students scrambled to take classes from this living legend.
But then a change in policy required that all professors must have a college degree, which this man did not. He thought about stepping down, but he found teaching so very fulfilling that he quietly enrolled in night classes at another local college. All was going well until his third semester, when he walked into his first day of Forensics 101. The class was small and the prof had everyone go around the room and introduce themselves. When it was his turn, he introduced himself and “Bill Strickland,” hoping to remain under the radar. With a chuckle, the professor asked, “I don’t suppose you’re related to the William Strickland who wrote our textbook?” to which he could only reply, “Actually, I am the William Strickland who wrote the textbook.”
I think most people who repeat this apocryphal story do so as sort of a critique of the “policy-trumps-common-sense” regulations we often encounter in life, or for the “squirm value” of putting ourselves in that professor’s shoes. I mean, how do you lecture on a book to the guy who wrote it, let alone give him grades on the content?
But when I think about that story, I can’t get past the humiliation of the professor-turned-student (humiliation in the original sense of the word—a reducing to a lower position). I hate the thought of him having to set aside his hard-earned status and position and go back to the beginning of the academic line. Even though the guy’s not real, I’m offended on his behalf and maybe even a touch angry. Isn’t the whole idea of organized society that you climb the ladder by hard work, talent, knowledge, skill, etc.? Even though it would mean that the urban legend (and, thus, the professor himself) would cease to exist, I wish he would appeal the university’s policy and demand he be grandfathered in, in light of his obvious credentials.
And yet, I didn’t have the same thought last night as we were setting up our nativity scene. Why not? The humiliation (again, in the original sense of the word) was far beyond the minor slight experienced by the professor. Many people have gone from being teacher to student, often many times throughout their lives. Countless others have set aside position and status and chosen to “start over” in one way or another. But only One has set aside the glory of eternal adoration and perfect, omnipotent majesty to become a helpless human infant. (“I don’t suppose you’re related to the Jehovah who created the cosmos?” “Actually, I AM the Jehovah who created the cosmos.”)
It’s one thing for an expert to endure elementary classes because of his love of teaching. It’s another thing altogether for the King of Kings to become the Suffering Servant of All , knowing he will be hungry and homeless, mocked and humiliated (both definitions of the word), and ultimately suffer and die for those who assumed they should be his teachers, because of his love for us. And, while I do feel a certain sense of offense and anger on Jesus’ behalf when I read about the finger-wagging Pharisees talking down to Our Lord . . . and while I feel a tremendous amount of heartbreak and indignation when I read about the sham trial and illegal torture and execution of Jesus, the real beginning of it all is the baby who grows in the womb of a peasant girl and is born in the lowest of places.
And for that reason, I shouldn’t find myself bothered by stories like the criminology expert who endures Forensics 101, as I put myself momentarily in his shoes. In fact, every opportunity to lower ourselves is an opportunity to be like Christ. A couple weeks ago, I preached on Jesus’ teaching that we should humble ourselves in the presence of God and man, knowing that He will lift us up. And Jesus didn’t just teach this; he lived it. How can you follow in his footsteps today, to show the world that God the Son’s voluntary lowering of himself has raised you up to heavenly places?
Thank God that the too-good-to-be-true tale of His coming to earth as a baby is not some “friend-of-a-friend” urban legend. Thank God that each of us can relate directly to Christ Himself, who calls His disciples “friends.” This Christmas, let us resist the world’s attempts to make the incarnation just another legend. Instead, let us be changed and inspired anew by Our Lord’s willingness to set aside his glory as we ourselves humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. Because we really do love our Story.