Tensie, my wife, was reading a book recently called The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, a highly respected biblical scholar and historian. What a challenge when intellectuals set out to set us straight on the sometimes incorrect perception of Jesus that many Christians have held for millennia. Some of those perceptions may, or may not, be true based on history or what we have learned about the Jewish culture at the time Jesus lived.

It seems that some of the stories in the New Testament possibly either didn’t happen, or happened differently than we may have believed. Or maybe our long-held interpretation of some passages doesn’t fit what we’ve learned of the culture of Jesus’ time. And how unsettling it can be when these new understandings cause us to question beliefs that have formed the very foundations of our value systems and possibly even of our decisions about how we choose to live out our lives.

When our religion, or our beliefs, or our spirituality are based solely on the stories in the gospels, we are already in trouble. Why? Because a foundation based only on Bible stories can be shaky if we find that the story itself may not be historically true. But when our values are based on the lived experience of that which the gospels teach us, the foundation is one that cannot be shaken.

For example, to those of us who have had the experience of being the “prodigal son” in our own lives, it matters little if the story is real, because the truth behind the story is unquestionable. For those of us who have experienced the redemption offered in love to the prostitute in the gospel, we could care less about whether that story happened or not. The reality of the unspeakable gratitude that comes from being forgiven, humanized, loved unconditionally makes the story true whether it happened historically or not.

And when we accept the grace to be the forgiver — the one who accepts the “sinner,” the betrayer, the one who has hurt us, what an incredible gift of deliverance it is from the pain and suffering that comes with our holding on to our own hurt. The stories (and the truth behind them) that we find in the gospels transcend all intellectual discussion about their historical accuracy. There is an archetypal truth in the gospels that can save us from the greed, the materialism, the militarism and the self-absorption of our own time and place — our own culture.

So what about the Christmas story? Did it really happen? Don’t know. Is it true? Absolutely.

I remember when I was growing up we had a friend of the family who was a priest and we went to a Mass at which he gave the homily on Christmas Day. I don’t remember the specifics but it was something along the lines of Christmas not being about singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus but rather a celebration of a new covenant, a new way of being in this world, brought to us in the person of Jesus. I went up to Father Nick afterwards and told him that it was about the worst sermon I had ever heard, and why would he want to ruin everyone’s Christmas? If I knew where Father Nick was today, I would apologize to him.

But here is the point. The Christmas story is not only one of the most beautiful in all of the gospels, it is absolutely true for anyone who has birthed a child in poverty. It is also true for anyone who, because of their belief in the gospels, has accompanied, assisted, or taken in a mother who has birthed her child in poverty.

Over the years we have been blessed to enter into so many peoples’ lives! The stories of the gospels have come to life through the people whom we have come to call “the beatitude people.” Jesus said “blessed are the poor” in a world where poverty was looked down on (and still is). Jesus said blessed are the hungry and thirsty and we still, 2,000 years later, have a hard time understanding what he meant. But the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great value is to be found in the entering into (and joining to the extent we are able) the lives of those who are utterly dependent on God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s redemption and God’s love — and by extension, ours. Because when we are well enough off that we don’t know we need those things, we are missing the intimacy with God to which Jesus invites us in the gospels.

We recently moved (through the incredible generosity of supporters) to a new house from which to do our work in Guadalupe. But we are in relationship with the same people and are exposed to the same lives and gospel parallels as we were in the previous house. We are still challenged to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, shelter the homeless and accept — and offer unconditional love to — those whose life circumstances (and the biases of our culture) have caused them to be marginalized by society.

Our move to a new house feels a little like a new birth. It is far from a birth in a manger, but still it offers us the opportunity to continue to both experience and live a life that brings the gospel stories alive and proves the truth of their lessons. We are celebrating this new birth. We are living in gratitude for the Christmas story which is, as Father Nick tried to teach us, “the story of the new covenant, a new way of being in this world, brought to us in the person of Jesus.” We are happy. We might almost be persuaded to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

Dennis Apel, together with his wife, Tensie Hernandez, and their colleague Jorge Manly-Gil, serve residents of limited means in Guadalupe through their Catholic Worker House, called Beatitude House. The Catholic Church of the Beatitudes supports their work and sponsors this column. Readers are welcome to join us for Mass on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author.