On Christmas Eve when I was 23, my wife and I traveled to Bethlehem from our apartment in Jerusalem. We gathered with hundreds under a clear canopy of stars at the place where Jesus was born. We sang hymns, listened to a preacher or two, and of course, read the entire narrative from the Bible. Joseph and Mary away from home; Jesus born in a barn; shepherds startled by angels; and wealthy wise men bringing their gifts on that first Christmas night.
This is OUR story: the Christian story: the birth of Jesus. As the gospel writer described it so many years ago: "And there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."
This is the time of year for OUR story. We read it, we sing it, we perform it, we preach it and color it, and observe it. In every way you can image, we recreate this story and cast it in every direction as the core and content of our Christian faith.
This is our story. "And she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger."
We celebrate it this week, this season. Advent, we call it, the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus, the fulcrum, we believe, upon which all of history turns. These stories that makes all other stories matter.
On that Christmas Eve 43 years ago, we were given a nativity set. It was simple, unadorned, unpolished, inexpensive I am sure. But it is a treasure to us, and every year at Christmas we unpack it and display it in a prominent place. It's not all there anymore. One shepherd and two sheep, plus an animal that may be a donkey. Joseph we have and three wise men. But missing is the manger, and Mary. Plus, we have no Jesus piece. Can it count as a nativity set if there is no Jesus? We like to think he grew up with the kids and now travels with them.
But it is our nativity set and we love it just like we love the story. "Now there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night."
I can almost recite that entire chapter from Luke's gospel, can't you?
That's because it is the subject of so many plays, cantatas, live nativities. It is an old practice among Christians. Nativity scenes are etched into the underground catacomb walls beneath Rome, and Francis Assisi himself organized one of the first live events. That was in 1223.
Do you have a nativity set in your house? I used to think such things were tacky, worldly, unnecessary, even distractive. I would have gone crazy in Texas which they say has in one place more than 1,000 nativity sets.
OK, that would still drive me crazy; as would the church in Kentucky that fills a 6,500-seat auditorium more than a dozen times, spectators gawking at their Christmas story, camels and all.
But mostly I have grown fond of this visual way of telling the most basic of all Christian stories. It is OUR story and it needs to be told. Everybody, everybody in the world, has a right to hear this story, don't you think?
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east."
Yes, I know scholars debate whether this piece of the story ever really happened; and even ordinary readers can figure out that this wise men journey happened perhaps two years after the birth of Jesus.
But we have all three of the wise men in our much diminished cast of silent actors. I'm not about to toss them after they have survived the various attics and basements of our journey through life.
They are part of our story. We sing about them. We dress up like them. We create for them extended dialogue, extravagant garments and even names, all to make our story more enchanting, more compelling, more powerful.
Perhaps some of this embellishment has helped transform OUR story--the Christian story--into THE story, the most famous story in the world.
Yes, I know there are other stories. One begins like this: "Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away." Star Wars--it's recently made a comeback, seeking to capture the imagination of another generation.
Or how about this opening line to a very popular story: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
I love the story of middle earth created by that Oxford professor, JRR Tolkien. I have read this Hobbit book, I've read the entire trilogy, I've read a host of explanatory books pointing out all the Christian themes as well as the strange inconsistencies.
And then there is Harry Potter. His story is told in seven volumes and has made his creator richer than the queen of England, they say.
These are all fabulous stories, and I am sure many people have small Star War collections in some storage bin in their house. They might even wear a Hobbit shirt every now and again.
But these are just stories.
The nativity of Jesus is THE story: the most famous story in the world. Around the world the devout and the indifferent set aside the days of December to celebrate in some way the birth of Jesus.
Yes: this holy day has been shellacked by the stuff of world culture. To our simple nativity set has been added the jolly ole Saint Nick, his pack of reindeers, and a sleigh full of toys. Sometimes it is Scrooge and Tiny Tim and the ghosts of Christmas past and future that sneak their way into our display. Always it seems the tree is there, right by the manger, with its brightly colored ornaments and mounts of packages with ribbons and bows.
I don't mind any of these latter day attachments. They are temporary, a bit tempting, but altogether secondary. They will not stand the test of time. They are here for a few decades, maybe a few centuries, riding piggy back on our wondrous celebration of the birth of Jesus, much like barnacles on the side of great ocean liner.
It is the story of Jesus and the shepherds and angels and wise men that carries the day and gives Christmas its sustaining power. It is not the outburst of mercantile activity but the steady stream of joy and generosity, of worship and redemption that flows around the story that is celebrated everywhere.
Even the nativity set itself is a world phenomenon.
Yes, in Christianized countries like Germany and Brazil, the living nativity and the sculpted one are popular and present for all to see. But in many pre-Christian cultures the nativity set exists, if only on assembly lines and home craft shops.
Consider this: as our Christmas season winds down, merchants are ready to sell at half price all of their unsold sets. Find one; turn over one of the animals and see what is written underneath: MADE IN CHINA or Bangladesh or Singapore or Hong Kong.
Think about how these nativity sets are made: in a large urban factory or a small family shop. Men and women labor over these small wooden figurines, a six-inch donkey here, a baby half that size there. They pile up at the end of the bench awaiting the paint and the polish. Across the aisle a hundred shepherd boys gather in a box on the steel shelf. Somewhere in the dusty shop, these strange people, these uncommon animals, and unexplained props take shape, created by people who do not know even the first line of the most famous story in the world.
Perhaps they create their own narrative tying together these forms; perhaps the workers give names to the figures, even the animals. Who knows what story springs from the imagination of these hard-working people? Even with this unknown, these crafters in faraway places find their place in the universal celebration of THE story.
And then one day, a radio broadcast brings to town a narrative, or a cell phone blares a video with characters very much like they are making, or a business man leaves behind a brief printed piece, and on that piece a story and pictures, one that provides a simple but compelling way to stitch together the man and the woman, the sheep and the camel, the shepherds and the angels.
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will among men.'"
The new story of nativity suddenly explains all the woodshop pieces of so many years; and slowly these ordinary people, laboring day to day, realize that THE story of the world has, for many years, been their story; they just did not know it.
It reminds me of the apostle Paul long ago in Athens. He stopped and looked at the inscription "To an Unknown God." He took that phrase as the on ramp to the gospel highway: "What you have worshipped in ignorance," he said that day, "I declare to you...The God who made the heavens and the earth has appointed a day on which he will judge the world and he has given proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead."
So it is with craftsmen at the bench: what you constructed for so many years, I now explain to you! What you thought was random I now show you the pattern. What you experienced as mystery, I now open for you as revelation. "Ahead of the wise men was the star, and it went before them until he stopped over the place where the child was."
These unnamed and unknown figurines suddenly have names: Joseph and Mary and Jesus. And the angels sing with a purpose and the wise men travel for a reason, and this THE most famous story in the world slowly gathers force, pulls together the pieces of their own drama, and forms them into a narrative about what God is doing in my life and your life. THE story becomes MY story. Not because I believe it, or even because I obey it. But because I find myself in every character in the story.
Like Mary I am bewildered at being chosen for something special.
Like Joseph, I am reluctant to get involved in a mess of a relationship.
Like the angels, I take great delight in singing such beautiful music.
Like the shepherds, I appreciate a diversion from monotonous work.
From the commitment of the wise men of the east to find something of great significance to the cunning of Herod at the thought of being upstaged by somebody else, I find myself, my many selves, my many motives and ambitions, hopes and dreams, prayers and supplications.
The nativity story is my story. In Jesus I have found that narrative that explains my life; I have found the person who fills my life; I have found the hope that sustains my life; I have found the joy that animates my soul with hope: "For unto you is born this day a savior, who is Christ the Lord."
This is My story; it is not just Our story as a Christian civilization; it is not just The story so dominate through the world; it is My story; and it can be Your story today. You can take your place in the nativity of Jesus and hear the Lord say to you, "Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy."