Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m a Scrooge at heart. (Actually, that might very well be; I haven’t even wanted to send out cards this year.) Or maybe it’s all the talk about the “war on Christmas.” Maybe it’s seeing all those Facebook posts with the arrows declaring, “This person is a real, true Christian who believes the real meaning of Christmas is making sure that you give your family stuff in JESUS NAME! Amen!!!!!” Maybe it’s seeing all the holiday lights, the decorations, the jingly Christmas ads, and knowing that for a lot of people, this isn’t a happy holiday. Whatever the reason, I’m noticing things I’ve never picked up on before about the way we retell the Christmas story.
In the midst of all the annual holiday angst over how we greet one another in honor of the season, it strikes me that we’ve sort of fetishized the Christmas story. We fixate on the minutiae. How many times have I heard people go on about Mary’s age, or the exact date and time of year, or how there weren’t actually three wise men, or how dirty and disgusting the stable was or any number of other details? It’s not that those things don’t matter. It’s just that they matter a lot less than we’d like them to.
I think I understand. We don’t want to lose sight of Jesus’ humanity when honoring his divinity. We want to make it clear that he was fully human, enough to be born into humble circumstances. And I certainly don’t believe we’ve missed the mark on giving God glory and worshiping the child who will one day redeem humankind. But there’s something a little bit unhealthy about the way we concentrate on the least important parts of the Christmas story.
It’s almost like we’re trying to build the most historically accurate version of the story. So we research the finer points, making sure that Mary is appropriately teenaged, the shepherds are appropriately scruffy, and the barn is appropriately manure-laden. It’s as if we believe it matters whether we have an artist’s rendering or a photograph, and we want the photo. In so doing, we miss the point entirely.
The whole point is that God didn’t flash to earth in the form of a cosmic lightning bolt. His birth was only celebrated by scraggly shepherds (Luke 2:8-18), foreigners (Matthew 2:1-12), and a couple of potentially crazy people (Luke 2:22-38). (All right, that last one is a stretch. There’s no evidence Simeon or Anna were actually insane. But what would you think if someone at church started prophesying like that over your kid?) The point is not, “My living nativity is more accurate than thine.” It’s God, coming down and living among us clothed in flesh, in such a way that he could even be overlooked. Instead of entering our world in a way that would surely make it clear that HE WAS GOD, He chose to come without anything at all.
This year, let’s stop worrying about how we give our holiday greetings. Let’s not stress about the exact details of the story. Instead, let’s fix in our hearts the words of Simeon:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.