I love the Nativity story as much as anyone. In my family, we had a Christmas Eve tradition of gathering in the living room around the tree and hearing the story retold by whomever was the youngest family member able to read from the tattered children’s Bible we had.
In our small-town Methodist church basement, there was the annual Christmas pageant staged by the children’s Sunday School classes, complete with shepherds’ crooks and costumes fashioned from bed sheets. Told and retold in story and song, the narrative of the birth of Jesus is so much a part of the Christian upbringing, so enmeshed and embellished with different cultural and family traditions, that we are likely encounter it at some point each year with nostalgia, misty eyes, and a lump in the throat.
It’s certainly a compelling story, with elements of young love, a grueling journey, political intrigue, and special effects. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each share a version of the “arrival of Jesus.” Matthew establishes the context with a recitation of Jesus’ lineage, Joseph’s dilemma in accepting the remarkable circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, the birth of the child, and finally a sadly familiar and contemporary plot twist taking the young family on a refugee odyssey to Egypt as they escape political power run amok (Mt. 1:1-2:23).
Mark, on the other hand, leaps forward in the chronology, introducing us to a young adult Jesus being heralded by John the Baptist (Mk 1:1-12) and baptized in the Jordan river. Finally, Luke provides the most memorable version with Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, obediently following the command of the state to leave home at the most inconvenient and uncomfortable of times, giving birth among the animals in a stable, being visited by shepherds and wise men, all illuminated by a brilliant star and heralded by a chorus of angels (Lk. 2:1-20).
Different as these three accounts are, what they share is the elements of narrative. We see the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and even a bit of “why.” If you took the three versions apart and reordered them from how they are presented in our 21st century Bible, you’d see a complete “Point A to Point Z” story. And this story is the one that touches all the “sentimental buttons” for many of us, the stuff of Christmas carols and Midnight Masses, the inspiration for many a Christmas card.
But what if we didn’t have this version of the coming of Christ into our world? What if we our only introduction to the arrival of Jesus was something more mysterious and mystical? What if Matthew, Mark, and Luke were removed from the canon, leaving us only with the Gospel of John? Imagine for a moment that our tradition taught us nothing of stables and stars, wise men and shepherds. Would we experience Advent (and maybe even the whole of Christianity) differently?
While the other Gospel sources focus on the narrative facts, John plunges us deep into the mystery of the Christ from the first word. John uses language that is symbolic, figurative, not so easy to understand. It is John who reminds us that the arrival of the Christ in the form of Jesus, the person, is not just a sweet story to warm our hearts and inspire Hallmark cards.
This arrival is cosmic! It is filled with mystery, timelessness, metaphor, and juxtapositions of light and dark. Kathy quoted John last Sunday as she concluded her entry. Let me share more:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5).
Wow! That’s some heady stuff! We read, we wonder, and we read again. Exactly what do these words mean? Do we have the wisdom to understand?
You can’t take John’s gospel introduction and create a “Little Golden Book” version for easy consumption. John’s account of the arrival of the Christ seems to not be meant for children—so abstract are his words that one would think that most youngsters are not developmentally capable of grasping all that he conveys. This should be marked “Warning: Adult Spiritual Content—Your Mind May Be Blown!”
Are we guilty of settling for a “Little Golden Book” version of Christianity? Are we reluctant to take the leap to explore the mystic, mysterious, cosmic nature of Jesus? It’s easier to live in the safe and sentimental stories of faith; however, while they are instructive to children, they are not necessarily transformational for grown-ups, or people seeking maturity in faith. Without transformation, the story risks being minimized to religious folklore, a pleasant fable, a quaint account of a simpler time long, long ago.
I love the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the stable, the tableau of the Holy Family with all the animals, shepherds, wise men and angels. But I already know that old, old story. I need an extreme Advent makeover. I’m looking for the light that shines in the darkness, because this world is feeling mighty dark these days. My Advent plan is to continue thinking, writing, and praying over John’s version of the coming of the Christ into the world.
I want to walk as a child of the Light
I want to follow Jesus
God set the stars to give light to the world
The light of my life is Jesus
In Him there is no darkness at all
The night and the day are both alike
The Lamb is the light of the City of God
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus