Christmas: Not a “Once Upon A Time” Story
Last weekend our place was happily mobbed with grandchildren. As the sun set I enlisted their help in lighting the three candles of Advent.
After the candles were going that they were eager to “organize” the figures in the manger scene beneath the candles. All the parts — Mary, Joseph, kings, cattle, sheep, shepherds and baby Jesus — are wood and moveable. So clearly they needed to be “organized.” Their word not mine. I chuckled at their effort to organize God’s story. So like the rest of us — telling God how things are supposed to be!
When that was done, I said, “Great, now let me tell you the Christmas Story.” Somewhat to my surprise, they all perched promptly on the couch, awaiting the story.
Which is when I experienced a strange moment of confusion. How should I begin?
As Luke does? With Caesar and Quirinius, names that meant nothing to them?
Or should I begin in the conventional manner, “Once upon a time.”
For some reason, I knew “once upon a time” was not the right way to go with this one. But since then I’ve been pondering why.
Meanwhile, when I swung into Emperors and kings, it was clear that we were actually in a world they got, one that made perfect sense to them. Even Herod pursuing the holy family and sending a hit squad of soldiers to knock off toddlers wasn’t a bridge too far. The 7-year-old was, however, quite certain that “Herod was Joseph’s brother.” “What? No!”
Now why was it that “Once upon a time” would have been the wrong starting point for this story, apart from the fact that it doesn’t start that way in the Bible?
Here’s why: the story of the Bible is located in the real world, in a particular time and place. Which is one meaning of the Christmas “doctrine of the Incarnation” (God became human and dwelt among us). If all this had happened “once upon a time,” it might be entertaining, even meaningful, but it wouldn’t make all the difference in the world because it wouldn’t have happened in the world, this world, our world.
It might be easier to swallow if it were a “once upon a time” story. We could enjoy it but let it go. But the Christmas (and Christian story) is more demanding than that.
There’s more. There’s what theologians call “the scandal of particularity,” the way that God chose particular people in a certain place in a particular time. My friend Rick Floyd got at this in an blog post on God’s choice of Mary, The Scandal of Particularity.
Rick helpfully quotes from C. S. Lewis:
“To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a “chosen people.” Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree. (italics added)
“After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.” (From Miracles, Chapter 14)
There is something just a little scandalous about this story’s particularity, of Bethlehem, of Joseph and Mary, of Jesus, a Palestinian Jew. Of its claim that here God is doing and has done something not “once upon a time” but for all time.
Who knew that telling the Christmas Story to the grandchildren could get a person into such theological deep water?