What is it, I wonder, that captures us about the Christmas story? It’s a story that never fails to warm our hearts, or make is tingle with excitement. I think that’s because, like all great stories, this one has so many brilliant elements to it.
First it’s a story with a journey at its heart. There’s a journey from Nazareth, to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and back again. Everyone loves a road movie – from the Wizard of Oz to Thelma and Louise, we all recognise, deep down, that road movies are analogies of our own lives…with all their joy and pain.
Secondly, this is a story full of juicy scandal! From Eastenders to tabloid newspapers, we all like a bit of juicy scandal. In this case, it’s the scandal of a child born out of wedlock (though admittedly, that’s not something we worry about so much these days!). Much more horrifying, though, is the scandal of King Herod, who put the children of Bethlehem to death for fear of losing his throne. This is a scandal about power. And we recognise it, don’t we? From scandals at FIFA, to the outrage of ISIS, or the fictional horror of Darth Vader and the Death Star, we recognise the real horror of people who try to dominate others through violence.
Then, thirdly, this is a story full of magic and mystery. Everyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy-tale or a Harry Potter movie instinctively picks up on those mysterious Wise Men of the East who follow a star. And of course, let’s not forget the Angels – mysterious beings whom we barely understand, suddenly appearing and proclaiming peace on earth.
Fourthly, there are the animals. Sheep on the hillsides, cattle lowing in the stable, a donkey faithfully carrying Mary. Anyone who thinks that human beings don’t like animal stories should check out the number of cat videos on Youtube! We are all suckers for a baby lamb, or a gently moo-ing cow in a barn. It brings out the ‘Aaah’ factor in us!
It’s a story rich with characters, too. There’s the faithful Joseph, who stands by his fiancée even though he must have had great doubts about her story. There’s Mary herself, forcing us all to wonder whether we could have had her faith to press on. Or rushing along the road to Bethlehem, trying to get there in time for the birth of her son…just as we rush around , preparing for the same event. There’s those rough shepherds, men of the hillsides, outsiders who are yet welcomed into the heart of the story. There are those mysterious wise men; and the fictional inn-keeper, never specifically mentioned in the Gospels, who yet causes us all to wonder how we would respond to a stranger asking us for sanctuary.
Perhaps we all love this story so much because we recognise ourselves in it. We know that we are all capable of Mary and Joseph’s faith, or the Shepherds’ wonder. We recognise that we are capable of being intelligent and thoughtful Wise Men and women. We also know, when we admit it to ourselves, that we, like Herod, are capable of abusing our power – the power we hold over our families or our work colleagues. Or, we recognise that we are the victims of such power, if others dominate us. We also recognise that there are times when we fail to act with the generosity of Joseph or the Inn-keeper. We know that we need help to be as faithful as Mary, or as brave as the Wise Men as they set out on their quest.
Ultimately, we all know that we can only journey so far through life on our own resources. We recognise our own weakness in the babe of Bethlehem. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we need the help of others – just as he did at that time of his life. We cannot live in isolation. We cannot do this thing called life, alone.
Ultimately, this is a story about a god who saw the plight and the drama of human life, and who chose not to remain aloof. This is not a god who sits on a cloud, demanding worship and dispensing favours in return for the right prayers. This is a god who decides to engage with all the mess and muddle of human life. He comes among us as that most fragile form of human life, utterly dependent on those around him, to show us that this is how we should live too. We cannot live a life apart. We need those around us, in our families, in our churches, as much as God needed Mary to bring him to earth. We need others just as Jesus needed Joseph and the Shepherds, and the Wise Men and even the fictional inn-keeper to welcome him and warm him.
This is our God who dispenses not condemnation on our messed-up human world, but mercy and grace. He enters into the human condition – he refuses to sit apart from it. And by his life, his teaching, and then his death and resurrection he offers us a way out, he rescues us, he redeems us – from our solitary, fearful, chaotic lives – from what the old-timers called ‘sin’.
And that’s why, on Christmas night all Christian sing, to hear the news the angels bring. For “when sin departs before his grace, then life and health come in its place!”