There is an alternate version of the nativity story, one known to millions since ancient times but I imagine completely strange to most Christians. Like the stories told by Matthew and Luke, this other version reads like a dream, a vision from the lower depths of the Biblical imagination. Joseph has no part in it. It is a story about Mary, about what happens to her when she hears from an angel that she carries a child. She flees to a desert place, in fear and alone. When she feels the throes of childbirth, the story goes, she lies down in the trunk of a palm tree, and cries out, “O I wish that I had died.” But a voice from below cries out back to her: “Do not despair. Your Lord has provided a brook that runs at your feet, and if you shake the trunk of this palm tree it will drop fresh dates in your lap. Therefore eat and drink and rejoice.”
What a striking way to re-imagine the birth of Jesus—not in a stable, but in an oasis in the middle of the desert, in a place where you can hear the distant roar of water, water hidden deep in the ground; a place where a brook runs at your feet, and where a voice from below, mingled with the sound of water, offers the comfort of salvation, salvation as luscious and lasting as the ripe dates brimming in your lap.
In the story, Mary immediately returns with her baby to her native village. People don’t know what to make of her. She makes a sign to them, pointing to the child. They reply in disbelief: “How can we speak with a babe in the cradle.” But then, as if in a dream at its most uncanny, the Babe himself speaks. The infant—the Word without words (which is what the word “infant” means)—suddenly declares itself. Here is what he says:
“I am the servant of God…His blessing is upon me wherever I go, and he has commanded me to be steadfast in prayer and to give alms to the poor as long as I shall live…I was blessed on the day I was born, and blessed I shall be at the day of my death; and may peace be upon me on the day when I shall be raised to life.”
As the reader might have guessed by now, this story that pays such deep homage to Mary and Jesus, this story that like Matthew’s seems to well up from a deep place below, is from the Qu’ran, the sacred text of millions of Muslims around the world. It is amazing to think, at this time of deep mistrust between Muslims and Christians, that we share at least something of this old story, told by each of us in our own way. There is much that divides us as we tell our stories, not least the Christian conviction that this child is God incarnate. But the least we can do, in these dark and violent days, is to acknowledge with our Muslim neighbor the wonder of Jesus’s humanity, a humanity that can restore in us and for us the humanity of those we consider our enemies, and those who consider us theirs.