Sunday, December 21, 2014

This Christmas: A Real Story

Much-churched or not, the basics of the story are hard not to know: virgin woman, shepherds, wise men, star. No room at the inn, fear not, good tidings of great joy, lying in a manger, patridge in a pear tree. (Hang on, sorry... that's something else...) We know the plot points, to a greater or lesser degree, and the story isn't really an involved one. (Does it involve centuries-old prophecies, did it change the world, yes, yes, yes, but from a narrative point, it's pretty standard.) And like any basic story you hear over and over, the surprises aren't surprises anymore. You know what's coming at the page turn. The suspense, the mystery evaporates.

This isn't a bad thing, really--familiarity allows you to ponder on the details, to know it in your bones, to remember year to year. It lets you tell the story to comeone else, with your own language and emphasis.

This is what got me thinking about this post, actually. My awesome cousin wrote, several days ago, about my awesome goddaughter telling the Christmas story to a small audience, and giving plenty of screentime to parts we might otherwise ignore or glaze over.
(Jenny's full post, "The Gospel Is Socially Awkward," is pretty awesome, too--read it here.)
We hope the little girl would focus on the cute barnyard animals (freshly washing, lowing far quieter than in reality, smelling like a Disney movie), on the young girl (beautiful, peaceful, divinely separated from fear, pain, or stress), on the adorable baby (also freshly washed, also being far quieter than most, smelling like Johnson & Johnson's). Ruby, I'm sure, mentioned these elements, but she also hit plot points most of us adults forget: namely, how the legal king of that area was driven to unabashed violence by jealousy, ordering the murder of thousands, maybe tens of thousands of two-year-old boys. But, as Jenny points out, this is a part of the story that connects itself to Ruby right now: she has two brothers under three.

I've probably skirted around on this before, but I hope to be hit, to be surprised by the Christmas story every year. This is too shiny of a wish, too naïve, but I hope it's true. Even this morning, it struck me as a parade of school-age children filed to the microphone in my mother's church, each reading a line of the story as others acted it out.

Shepherds--loner, poverty-stricken men and boys--were out in a field, doing their thing. The sky splits open with light and noise and something outside of what their senses can perceive. And because that isn't enough, they explain that "the Savior--yes, the Messiah, the Lord [of everything, forever, no seconds]" will be found, not at the front of a long line of onlookers, not in shining gold plate, sword in hand... But "a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:11, 12). Not only a baby--that's hit on a lot, and I guess we've learned to feign surprise at that now, but wrapped not in new baby clothes, not even a nice blanket, but strips of cloth. In a cave, in a trough from which animals (smelling like a lot of things but Disney wasn't one of them) were only just eating.

Celebrated, austere, well-known men of wisdom and education came into Jerusalem and were seen by the aforementioned king. No appointment necessary, we deduce--or at least not much time spent in the waiting room. They come from hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away bearing gifts of astounding worth. "No, no," one of them must have to say, "we're not here for you. We're on our way to a suburb outside of town." The king, the only one on the turf, gets to listen to these know-it-alls request directions to "the newborn king of the Jews... [because] we have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:2). The only thing that keeeps their heads attached is his lack of information. In a voice that is nothing if not the Grinch, Herod asks them to report back "so that I can go and worship him, too!" (2:8). Given the choice, I'd "take the seasick crocodiiiiiiiiiiile..."

Mary was probably exhausted, and while the sight of her new baby brought peace, don't tell me it didn't bring with it all the unknowns. Joseph, my favorite of the pieces in this story, went without sleep more than a little in those first months. (As Ruby would tell you, Joseph was a good daddy and protected his son, taking him and Mary across foreign borders to keep them from Herod.) The animals did not neaten up before they arrived. The ladies of Bethlehem did not put together a diaper shower.

I don't say any of this to take away the wonder, the miracle, the magic of the Christmas story. I don't think remembering the details and realities makes it any less miraculous--in fact, after the year that 2014 has been I think I need that extra reminder that God speaks the astounding and the miraculous right into our normal lives, and even in the midst of it there are still elements we might have changed (anything from barnyard smells to murderous rulers). But this is the story--all of it.

And it's a really good one.

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