Historian and spiritual philosopher, Ian Lawton describes the dilemma of those of us who seek to put a “little reason into the season” this way: “Picture the scene. Mary and Joseph are huddled together in a manger surrounded by farm animals. Joseph is drifting in and out of various dreams. Angels fly in and out of the manger singing songs and bringing earth-shattering messages. Three eastern kings gather around Mary and Joseph with gifts. Out of the window a large star can be seen in the day sky. Two sheep sit beneath the window having a conversation. One says to the other, “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. Let me go through this one more time. The virgin is having a baby. They’re naming him Jesus because of a dream. Angels told them that their baby would become the saviour of all humanity. Kings travelled hundreds of miles to find the place of birth like a needle in a haystack because they were led by a giant star moving through the day sky. Now which part of this are you having trouble believing?” The Christmas story is fantastic in the literal sense of the word. It is mostly fantasy. Which parts of it do you have trouble believing?
You’re in good company. This story is as unlikely as talking sheep. The laws of nature tell us that sheep don’t talk, virgins don’t have babies, stars don’t travel across the day sky and then hang like a blip over one home and angels don’t sing choruses. Even if a reliable source suggested that something happened that broke the laws of nature, you would demand evidence and there is little evidence for the details of the Christmas story outside of the Bible which has contradictory details. All in all, the Christmas story is highly unlikely. But don’t let details get in the way of a good holiday story, right? If you’re like me, you’re torn between the desire to be true to your common sense that is skeptical and your heart that just wants to let the story be a good story. The good news is that you can have both. You can question the literal account of the story AND you can enjoy the timeless message of the story. You can put a little reason into the season, and still take a yuletide joyride of inspired meaning. The Christmas story is mostly myth, but the message is real and powerful.”
Since the end of the first century, some 1900 years now, the Christmas story has been told. Lately the church has become a little embarrassed by the way in which this story has been told. All sorts of experts have weighed in to tell us that it could never have happened the way we all remember it. Biblical scholars, historians, theologians, bishops, pastors, professors even scientists have cast doubt on the details of the story of the nativity. But even though we know how impossible some of the details may be we cling to this power of the story. Despite the wisdom of the experts, regardless of our doubts this story still has the power to stop us in our tracks. No other story or image is more recognizable to people the world over than the Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus. The images of an angel announcing the birth, a virgin responding in faith, a carpenter leading a woman on a donkey to a stable in Bethlehem, cumulating with Mary and Joseph gazing fondly at the baby Jesus, while the shepherds look on and the heavenly host sing their praises, these images are crystal clear to all of us. The story is part of us; it’s in our bones. Every year this story causes our lives to shift from the routine of winter, to marveling at the wonder of it all, as we enter into a sacred time, where families are drawn together, and strangers greet one another with kindness and from near and far the hope of peace on earth is a dream shared by us all.
Now, I know that somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of our being, or for some of us, just beneath the surface of this dream, the wisdom of the experts causes a shiver to run across our spines as we wonder how the hope for peace on earth can possibly lie with such an unbelievable story. That shiver used to haunt me, until the day I recognized the power of the truth that lies in the story of the birth of Christ. It happened a few years back, when my youngest niece Sheri Lynn was about three years old. I have three nieces and over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation as their eccentric auntie. I can’t help myself, my love of stories and books just oozed over into my role as their auntie. And so to mark every occasion in their little lives their dear old Auntie Dawn showered them with books. Before every birthday, every Easter, and every Christmas every special occasion I could be found in the children’s section of the bookstore, scouring the shelves to find the perfect book that told the perfect story. My family used to tease me mercilessly and insist that I ought to get those little girls something they could play with. But only books were good enough for my nieces. So, you can just imagine the collection of books they have that tell the story of the Nativity. My family are not churchgoers, so on Christmas Eve I used to go to the Midnight service before heading over to my brother’s house to spend the night. Well the year that Sheri Lynn was just three, I arrived at my brother’s house at about 1:30 in the morning. My brother and his wife, my parents and my nieces were all safely tucked up in bed. On the dining room table were the remains of the milk and eating the cookies that had been left for some other visitor. I poked my head into the room where my youngest niece was sleeping. Little Sheri was snorting as little ones do when they sleep. In the glow of her nightlight I could see a rather unusual gathering on the floor by the foot of her bed. Standing upright on the floor was a large picture book opened to show a picture of an empty stable above which a star hung in the night sky. Beside the book was a doll’s cradle; inside the cradle was a naked doll covered only in a tea-towel. Sitting proudly with their legs sprayed out as if they were doing the splits were what could only be Mary and Joseph even tough they looked a lot like Barbie and Ken. Surrounding this scene were all sorts of little people, some smurfs, a few princesses all, no doubt, standing in for shepherds and angels. The most wonderful part was that all of God’s animals were there, not just the donkey, the sheep and the cattle, but giraffes, zebras, horses, pigs, lions, tigers, turtles, alligators, elephants, hippos, bears and even an alligator and a snake. It was just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold a peaceable kingdom were all the animals lived in peace together and where the lion would eat straw with the ox and the wolf and the lamb would lie down together. The great thing about toddlers playing with animals is that in their minds all of the animals can play together. Sheri Lynn knew that the giraffe eats leaves because I saw her holding it up to the Christmas tree so that it could feast. She knew that the horse and the cow and the sheep and the chickens lived over at the Fisher Price farm and that some of the other animals lived aboard Noah’s ark, and that snakes and alligators could be very scary indeed, but on this night all the animals played together, and all of them gathered together at the baby’s cradle to love and to warm and to care for the child, who lay naked and vulnerable before them. Sheri Lynn had created an image of the Nativity story; an image whose details weren’t exactly correct, but an image that told the truth about all our longings during this most holy season.
So, if your struggling over some of the details of the nativity story, if the experts have left you perplexed, cynical or worried, do not be afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy. The story is true, every last word of it is true. For this story is a parable and like all parable’s it represents a truth that cannot be fully expressed in words. Like all good parables the truth is not to be found in the details, but rather in the Spirit of God that breathed life into the parable. It’s a parable about so many things, but most of all it is a parable about peace on earth. Now there are many down through the ages that have tried to weave stories of peace on earth, but none so everlasting as this. Yes, some of us would have rather have had a road map or an expert to set us on the path to peace. But alas all the experts have failed in their efforts to guide us. The truth that they impart has been rejected. So once again we are left with this story. A story so simple that even a child can understand it. A story that depicts the truth that was experienced by those who walked and talked loved and learned from Jesus and the truth echoes through the centuries and the message is clear to everyone who has ears to hear. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among all people.” and we are left wondering at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the tradition it inspires: the truth of the mystical longing of the creature for the creator—the finite for the infinite—the human for the divine. It’s a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom—a longing that is represented for us by the baby in the manger—the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who is Emmanuel, God with us.
Yes, we embody the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is LOVE dwells in, with and through us; among us as one of us. God moves in, with and through us as we share that love with a world in desperate need of it—a world yearning for “peace on earth, good will among all people”. That shalom—that peace—that unfamiliar hush is the peace on earth I’m praying for this Christmas—the shalom that doesn’t just mean the peace that comes when we’re no longer at war but the shalom that means that all human beings live together at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of God’s wondrous creation. Shalom, the Hebrew word for what we might describe as “turning the human race into the human family” —the peace on earth that we, are called to be about as followers of Christ, not just at Christmas but all year long. The truth is that peace is the only way we can insure that all the three year olds of this world will have an opportunity to play, to learn and to grow. Sheri Lynn is all grown up now. She has a little girl of her own. I am now great old Auntie Dawn, and what I want more than anything is for my great niece and nephew, together with all the children in my life and in yours, to inherit peace on earth. To accomplish that we will have to go out into this Christmas season and into this New Year and put our faith into action. That means prayers and protests; speaking up and stepping out; offering whenever and wherever possible the Good News of God’s shalom and realizing the truth of the angels chorus. For we are the followers of the one whose birth they herald.
Howard Thurman, a fellow follower of Christ, put it best declaring that:
When the song of the Angel is stilled,
When the Star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters—
To make music in the heart.
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way,
in all that we do and in all that we say.
The work of Christmas lies before us.
So, dear friends, rejoice and be glad, for unto us a child has been born, a child born some 2000 years ago; a child born just the other day, a child born this very moment, a child has been born who is the Christ; our God Emmanuel who dwells in, with and through us.
(In addition to Ian Lawton, I am indebted to John Dominic Crossan’s insights about parables in “The Power of Parables” as well as his work with Marcus Borg in “The First Christmas” for helping me to see beyond my own desire for reason to the mystery of the birth narratives.)