The told story is not the whole story.
We tend to grasp onto moments as the whole. In a culture obsessed with tiny tweets and shiny surfaces, it’s easier to outrage or comfort ourselves with sound bytes that echo the thoughts between our ears, daily dulling our curiosity. We take the smallest sliver for the encompassing everything.
But look closer. Deeper. Longer.
What you see or hear or read is never the whole story.
We hear this exhortation to empathy often now, in our dealings with loved ones and strangers alike. To remember that so much hides below the surface, that you never know the depths of another’s struggles.
But every story holds this same mystery.
Take one small line from Scripture.
Did you ever notice that Mary and Elizabeth spent a whole trimester together? The Visitation was not a mere afternoon or a split second of joy. It lasted three long months.
Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
A single line that opens up a world of possibility. What was the whole story beneath the told story?
Mary and Elizabeth must have talked about everything, these kindred spirits in a cruel world that whispered rumors and disbelief about them.
They must have marveled together—this elder sage and eager young woman, one at the end of her unexpected pregnancy, one at the beginning—in awe of the impossible that God was working before their eyes, under their skin.
They must have helped each other, preparing for babies they could never have imagined, soothing each other through whatever anxieties or aches they carried along with the children.
They must have prayed together, imagining the labors ahead, asking God to protect them in this most dangerous work asked of women, trusting that the Living God who brought them to this surprising place would guide them through to new life.
Scripture shares the slimmest story of what must have been a rich and life-changing sojourn, over months and months.
The joy of their initial encounter—Elizabeth crying out, John jumping with joy, Mary proclaiming a powerful, prophetic prayer to the God of justice—was only the instant of first meeting. The start of a long conversation.
What came next was not passed on or written down, but it remains part of the story. As much as the silence between the notes makes the music.
Over the next few days before Christmas, we will hear familiar stories. Joseph’s dreams. Mary’s pregnancy. The angels’ song. The shepherds’ visit.
If we assume we know these stories, if our eyes glaze over and our ears tune out, if we picture them as flat scenes with stock characters, if we mistake them for cute illustrations in children’s Bibles, or if we expect them to provide an eyewitness account of historical facts, we have missed the point entirely.
The whole story is meant to challenge us, change us, convert us. It is meant to upend everything we know—including our easy interpretations and our comfortable lives.
Our task is to push below the surface and stop listening in default mode.
Do yourself a favor this Christmas, and let yourself fall into the whole story. As you hear the Same Stories again and again, the ones you know by heart, listen with untamed ears. Dig into the footnotes, explore the edges of the scene, let your eyes land upon a line you’ve never heard before.
Imagine what it might mean about God, to deepen a story you think you knw, to wonder what the untold rest might hold. Imagine what it might mean for the people and stories you encounter each day, if you stopped seeing them as the whole, if you humbled yourself to know only a part.
Whatever we are given as the told story is only an opening: the invitation into the holy whole. Which is mysterious. Which is hidden. Which is also imaginable—and herein lies the invitation.
I can never know the whole story. But I can imagine the wideness of God at work. That is the opening of prayer.
Remember that grade-school textbook illustration of an iceberg? Only the tip visible above the water; the hulking monstrosity ballooning below. Enough to sink the most powerful ship.
Whenever we take the surface for the total, we run a dangerous risk—of complacency, ignorance, judgment, and misinterpretation.
Of Scripture. Of strangers’ situations. Of others’ lives. Of anyone’s actions.
Whatever you hear, read, see, or believe, consider it a beginning. Not the entirety or the end. An important distinction, rooted in humility.
The told story is never the whole story. But what potent possibility.