by Mike Phay
To fresh ears, it may sound fantastic or novel; but the Christmas story is not a work of fiction. It is, in fact, an eye-witness account of actual events. It’s as real as the memory of the day you just lived through: the breakfast you ate, the book you read, the trip you took to the store, the argument you’re still seething over. True, it’s an unusual story: it features at its very center a pregnant teenage virgin. It’s speckled with seemingly incredible coincidences, the strange appearance of angelic beings, and a clear astrological sign. Elements like these in any story tend to stretch our modern sense of believability.
Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, and because we’ve heard this story time and time again, it’s lost its ‘wow’ factor. It no longer carries with it a sense that something so wild just might, in fact, be true. The beauty and the drama and the wonder of this story have been left behind like so much discarded wrapping paper, existing in our memory alongside the abandoned myths of our childhood naïveté, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
My four-year-old daughter often asks: “Is this for real life?” By which she means, is this story true? Is this TV show or movie real life or is it made up? Even at such a young age, she’s hunting for veracity, for verifiability. She’s looking for reality. Seeking to discern what’s real and what’s not.
Those of us who are attentive will—and should—ask the same thing about the story of Christ’s coming into the world: “Is this for real life?” Sometimes we too easily gloss over this question, perhaps mouthing an affirmative answer while going about our lives as if nothing was further from the truth.
Let me invite you to reconsider the reality of this story. However difficult it might be to recapture an element of freshness in this well-worn, oft-told story, it truly is an ancient story that never gets old.
Two elements draw me back to the reality of the story:
First, its earthiness. This is a story inhabited by real people with real names, in real places that we can find on real maps. Jesus came to us by coming to real, nameable places—Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth. He came to real, nameable people—Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and the wise men. No names have been changed here to protect the innocent: when we read and listen to the story, we get what we get. No gloss. No glamour.
And this is the beauty of Christ’s coming: he actually cares about real people in real places. Through the narrative of Christ’s birth, God declares his deep desire to know me, to identify with me. Because I, too, am a real human being, with a real name, living in a real place. The story gives me an incredible amount of hope because perhaps God could even come to me in the place where I am.
The second reason the story rings true is that it’s not the story any of us would have written. However much we love to root for the underdog, I’m not sure we would have featured, as the main characters, a teenage mom, three Asian astrologers, and a scraggly group of unbathed and uneducated herdsmen. Most of our scripts would include a strong and handsome, somewhat mysterious, though inwardly troubled hero; or perhaps a winsomely clever, somewhat provocative, though inwardly strong heroine. There would definitely be a romance and some kind of chase scene. And everyone would live happily ever after.
Though not lacking for drama, the Christmas story is definitively marked by weakness and obscurity. Jesus doesn’t appear as a baby “out in the open”—in a king’s palace or on the national news. On a grand scale, Jesus’ birth is largely unnoticed. When it is noticed, it’s not by the important people. Not by the glamorous or the powerful, the rich or the famous.
And this gives me hope, because not only am I a real person in a real place, but I’m neither rich nor famous, glamorous nor powerful. I’m not really that important. God notices even those of us who are, by all accounts, unnoticeable.
These dual elements should draw us to a dual response: welcome and worship.
Welcome him. Jesus—the divine Stranger—has come into this, our world. He has come to you: where you live, with the name that you carry. Because he came as a baby—obscure into our obscurity—we know we are welcome. Our response to God welcoming us in Christ should be to welcome him, in Christ.
Worship him. Certainly, we should worship Jesus for his power. But on Christmas, we worship him for identifying with the powerless. For noticing the unnoticeable. We worship him for appearing to those whose appearance isn’t up to the world’s standards. We worship him for standing with those who can’t stand up for themselves. We worship him for—in becoming human—giving dignity to us when we lack our own.
Will you welcome him? Will you worship him?