Night after night, Jesse and Kelly Cone led their children through some of the most familiar verses in all of Christianity. The goal was to use the quiet pre-Christmas season of Advent -- or Nativity Lent in their Eastern Orthodox parish in Santa Maria, Calif. -- to help their young sons grasp the meaning of Feast of the Nativity, which begins Dec. 25th and continues for 12 days. This isn't easy in a culture in which the powers that be roll out the Christmas bandwagon with the Halloween candy, well before the Thanksgiving turkey.
Each night at their simple Lenten meals the Cones opened a bag containing a verse or two of scripture, and four pieces of candy. The story started slowly, with all the familiar details about Roman politics, taxes, a census and a man named Joseph, making a precarious journey with his pregnant wife, Mary.
Then came this crucial detail, the moment when Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
All of this was familiar territory for the two Cone sons, but not for the two foster children living with the family.
"These boys were new to the Nativity story, but they certainly knew all about being homeless and alone," explained Kelly Cone, reached by telephone.
In a post online, that has since gone viral, she described the turning point: "Then we reached the part of the story where Mary and Joseph were forced to stay in a stable outside, cold and alone. No one had any room for them. They did the best they could, even though it was lower than low.
"I looked up at our 10-year-old foster boy, and his head was bowed, his face drawn and serious. Unlike his 5-year-old happy-go-lucky brother beside him, he remembers. He remembers the cold nights sleeping on the street or in someone's car because his mother had nowhere safe for him to stay. Instead of protecting him and reaching out for help, she eventually abandoned him at a mobile home park."
The 10-year-old boy -- who cannot be named due to privacy issues -- had tears in his eyes. Kelly Cone asked him how he thought Mary and Joseph must have felt.
"Sad. Cold," he replied.
From that moment on, the Cones knew this would not be an ordinary Advent and Christmas. There were children at their table who were hearing the Nativity story for the first time and, day after day, this reality began to gnaw at the Cones "like a bad toothache," she said.
The questions kept coming. Yes, the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church. Yes, Christians really believes that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own. Yes, shepherds in that part of the world had to sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions. Yes, coming face to face with an army of angels probably freaked the shepherds out.
While his wife processed her thoughts online, Jesse Cone shared these Advent dinner vignettes with students at the Christian high school where he teaches.
"Every kid knows the story, and every kid there has read a lot of theology. ... I told the story at our Christmas chapel -- not as eloquently as my wife did -- and people were crying," he said. As it turns out, "not only can you get a better view of the Nativity story by spending time with homeless boys than at the mall, you can see it better than you can from a theology department."
In California, he noted, people sing all kinds of Christmas carols that make references to snow and this becomes normal, even when snow is something that they rarely if every experience. The snow exists in their minds and they are comfortable with that. Sadly, the same thing tends to happen with the Nativity story itself.
All of these details, added Jesse Cone, are "artifacts we appreciate from a distance. That's what Christ meant for these boys before actually hearing the story, and that's how it can become for many of us as well."
But not this Christmas: This year the story came home for real.