For several years now we have either attended or participated in a walk-through re-creation of the Christmas story that takes place in a small village north of our town. In a world of blockbuster budgets and special effects, it always amazes me that people are willing to spend an hour in the variable (usually cold) weather to watch an amateur cast of volunteers do their best at being shepherds, tax collectors, innkeepers, etc. There are about 16 ‘stations’ on the tour for each imaginary ‘family’ to visit, and the event wraps up with an optional hayride followed by hot chocolate or cider and a cookie in the basement of the community hall.
People are drawn to this event. I don’t know what compels people to come. No one has any high expectations concerning the dramatic or musical ability of the participants. It’s like a holy hush falls over each little group of 10-15 people as their guide heads out on the quarter-mile walkabout. People simply receive the story.
The event was started by people concerned that the scriptural version of the story gets lost in all the other narratives that have been layered over what happened in Bethlehem. Christmas ≠ The Little Drummer Boy, Christmas ≠ Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, Christmas ≠ Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s not about mistletoe, fruit cake, or ugly sweaters. The story is not the story of a boy who wants to buy his mom some shoes, a little match-stick girl, a bell causing an angel to “get its wings,” or Tiny Tim saying “God bless us every one.” (And nobody “saw three ships” because Bethlehem is land-locked.)
Of course, the purpose of the annual event we attend is to keep alive the real meaning of Christmas. This is the moment in the busy rush of seasonal activities where, figuratively speaking, Linus steps out on the stage to tell the story to Charlie Brown from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. For about 20 minutes, we’re reminded of something really messy that took place two millennia ago in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Something still a major force in the lives of people today.
But does this repeating of the story from Matthew or Luke really tell the full Christmas story? I wonder to what extent people are able to connect the dots if you don’t prompt them somehow? Something in me wants to put the cookies on a lower shelf (and not the ones that come with the cider). Would preaching a sermonette at the end ruin it? (Or as Jon Acuff would say, juke it; but how do you juke the Christmas story when Jesus is already at the center of it?)
Still, if asked, here is what I consider the real Christmas story:
- First of all, the centerpiece of the Christian church is Easter, not Christmas. In Matthew and Luke, the narrative receives a total of 39 verses versus 744 for the Easter narrative. (This might be the only sentence on the internet that reads verses versus.) You can skip the birth story entirely — like Mark and John do — but you can’t ignore the how or the why of Jesus’ death. And resurrection. The baby, the sheepherders, the wise guys, etc., all eventually segue toward an event involving betrayal and brutality. The latter is not the bedtime story that the former is.
- Second, the Christmas story is part of a much larger story arc. Seen in isolation it really goes nowhere, it’s just a story about a woman and a baby born to an unwed mother in adverse conditions, while she and her fiancee were out of town. Rather, the birth of Jesus needs to be seen as the fulfillment of a promise; the completion of a covenant; the entry-point or heralding of the initiation of a new covenant. Turns out the novella you purchased is part of a series. The little town of Bethlehem scenes were just a trailer for an epic movie.
- Third, somewhere along the way, you have to introduce the element of who Jesus claimed to be, and how he came to understand his own mission. The holiday celebrated in the western world on December 25th is all about incarnation, and frankly, you either get what that word means, or you don’t get the story at all. Like most Alfred Hitchcock movies, this is the scene where God steps into his own play, the director suddenly has a role, and not a small role. Jesus’ claim of equality of with God makes him appear like someone who is nuts, until you remember the parts about healing blindness, raising the dead, and predicting his own death and resurrection. We’ll avoid the theological differences of opinion on the divinity/humanity question, except to say that if you’re asking the question at all, you get it when it comes to who Jesus really was. And still is.
- Finally — and there are other things we could introduce, but this is my imaginary sermonette, and I only have ten minutes — I would want to include the idea that this story didn’t end 2,000+ years ago. It continues to this day and (and this is so very important) it demands a response from everyone. The awkward phrasing of the KJV in Matthew 22:24, “What think ye of Christ?” is probably the question that should be on everyone’s lips each December, though you might choose a more modern rendering. The story is not content to have its hearers close the book on the final page. Rather, the book gets stuck open, simmering, percolating, demanding something of each individual with whom it comes in contact. It’s like a computer program you can’t shut down until you respond to a question in a dialog box. It stares at you, and goes, “Well? …Well? …What about it?”
- And then, in a single sentence, I would squeeze in a mention that the story we repeat is simply Jesus’ first coming; he left us with the phrase familiar to millions of Arnold Schwarzenegger fans, “I’ll be back.”
That, Charlie Brown, is the true meaning of Christmas.