Christmas: story or reality ?
Many people think of the events of the first Christmas as a story. “The Christmas story.” While some stories convey the truth (or at least ‘a‘ truth), many other stories are fiction and told to entertain or encourage, to captivate, or to confuse.
And then there are true stories that are the accounts of an historical event or of a brave hero.
The reality of the Incarnation is not any of the above. The birth of Jesus is not a story that we can dismiss as fiction. Nor is it simply a true account that we can file alongside other facts of history. The account of the Incarnation of the Son of God is a reality. This reality is as vivid to the person of faith today as to the shepherds and Magi two thousand years ago. The Incarnation is a living reality, since, unlike other figures of history who are dead and buried, Jesus is fully alive today.
This is a bit mind-blowing, and confusing. Perhaps this is why we settle for a Christmas ‘story‘: Mary and Joseph with their newborn child, a donkey and some other well-behaved animals, shepherds and some ‘wise men’, and they all lived happily ever after… This is a story that does not frighten children at bedtime. This is a safe story.
However the reality of the Incarnation two thousand years ago is a very different event.
Remember the young Jewish woman having to explain to her parents that she was pregnant, and that her child was fathered ‘by the Holy Spirit’. Then there was the inconvenient census requiring them to make a difficult journey, by donkey down to Bethlehem. In that little town there was no room, and the child was born in the barn.
Just a few months after the birth of Jesus, news reached Joseph and Mary of Herod‘s intention to kill their son. The Magi had deceived Herod and now Herod was desperate enough to have every male under the age of two killed. The only safe option was for Mary and Joseph to flee with the child Jesus to Egypt.
This journey was a significant one. The distance is over 500km. It is through desert and would have taken them at least several months. We know something of this distance from the account of Moses leading the people of Israel from Egypt to their new promised land. It took them forty years (although they did do a bit of travelling in circles and long-term camping on the way).
We do not know how long Mary, Joseph and Jesus spent in Egypt. After a time they received word that Herod was dead. It was now safe for them to return home and they began the return journey. As they neared their home region they realised that Herod’s replacement was as bad as Herod, and they settled instead in Nazareth.
These events make for anything but a safe Christmas story. The entry of God into human history in Jesus, was as dramatic, and fraught with pain and agony, as the human history that preceeded and followed the event of the incarnation.
A few days ago I blogged T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”. Eliot clearly appreciates the reality beyond the contemporary ‘peace and goodwill’, ‘tinsel and present’ reduction of the Christmas event. As the Magi return home after their visit, Eliot has them ponder:
“…were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
What is my point?
If we reduce the Christmas event to present celebration of family and friends and goodwill to strangers; If we give gifts simply because that is the done thing at Christmas; we will miss the point of God becoming real in the midst of our daily struggles, loneliness and pain.
And the tragedy of this loss is that we are left as hopeless and helpless orphans for the rest of the year. Yes we have parents and children. We have friends and work, and business and property. But none of these occupations, possessions or relationships can consistently provide us with an adequate reason for living.
Our only constant and reliable justification is found in relationship with God.
So how can we enter this relationship more deeply?
An essential step is to become aware of the reality of our own lives. That is, we must realise that much of what we do and say is a futile attempt to meet our own needs and grasp at a mirage of meaning and satisfaction.
The reality of course is that despite polite outward appearances, every one of us lives with anxiety, tension and contradiction. As St. Paul admits ‘at times I find myself doing the very things I do not want to do and not doing the things I do want to do’ (Romans 7:15)
If Christmas is just an old comfortable story, eating and drinking and giving gifts is the only method we have to (even momentarily) anaesthetize our tensions and anxieties.
However, because we accept the birth of God in Jesus as reality, we have an effective method of living: by facing the reality that is every moment of life, and allowing God to reveal Himself in this unlikely reality.
We choose this method when we name the ways in which we avoid the reality of our own uncomfortable, unwanted, and perhaps even undeserved circumstances.
We practice this method whenever we realise that something is inconsistent when we feel horror at Herod’s killing of 20 (approx) innocent children, yet we live comfortably with that fact that over 16.000 innocent children were ‘legally’ killed in New Zealand last year by abortion.
We live this life of God with us when we feel burdened by our personal situation and overwhelmed by our sin. It is this healthy human awareness that reveals our life ripe for encounter with God.
It is such human weakness, fragility, and honest humility that is human life most resembling a stable.
And we know that (even with every other option available), that God chose a stable in which to Himself physically enter human reality.