I’ve told this story before, I know, more than once even, but it bears repeating.
When I was a boy, we had a really nice crèche at Christmas. There were lots of figures in that manger scene, people and animals, even an angel, and they were all handmade, some as tall as 8 inches. It had a beautiful wooden frame of a stable that everyone fit in, and having it out on the sideboard in the dining room was always a highlight of our Christmas decorations.
My Dad usually got it out about the first or second week of Advent. But he never put the whole thing out at once. At first, there would be some animals, a cow and a donkey, maybe a sheep or two in the stable. By the week before Christmas, the angel had taken its place on the wall above the stable and Mary and Joseph had appeared, but there was no baby yet.
On Christmas Eve, the baby would appear in the manger and there would be shepherds and, of course, the star would hang with the angel on the wall over the stable. The magi, the wise ones from the East, would appear in the living room.
Yes, the living room. And each day or two, my Dad would move them closer to the stable, from end table to coffee table, across the great expanse of the piano (that took a few days) until they would arrive in the dining room at the stable on January 6. That’s Epiphany, the day on the church calendar when the magi arrived and Jesus was revealed to them as the child they were seeking, the Messiah.
As a child, and especially as a teenager, I have to admit that business of moving the magi seemed kind of excessive, even silly. But over the years, I’ve come to realize how wise (no pun intended) it was.
Sometimes I think that we spend so much time getting ready for Christmas and enjoying Christmas before it actually happens, that to have it be “over” is often a relief. All we want to do in the week or two after Christmas is relax and recover. So we put our whole story in one manger at one time.
But that’s not how the story goes, is it? First of all, Mary had to be pregnant for nine months, so the story starts a lot earlier than Christmas Eve. Then they had to travel to Bethlehem and, when the baby was born, the angel told the shepherds, who were the first to see Jesus after Mary and Joseph.
The magi followed the star that first appeared with Jesus’ birth. It’s not like they could catch the red eye and be there over night. In fact, Matthew’s gospel says that when they arrived, “on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11). Jesus had already had his first birthday, that’s why Herod, says the story, ordered that all the boys two years old and under should be killed. Warned in a dream, Joseph took his family to Egypt to escape. So, born in a stable, worshiped by shepherds, revered by magi and so feared by a King that he tried to kill him – that’s a lot of excitement for your first couple of years!
My point is not to suggest that we be more literal about the Christmas story. It’s just that Christmas is so much bigger than God dropping into a stable manger one evening. When we take the time to hear the story and hear it each day, not just one day, it’s amazing how much God’s love is revealed, not just in the moment of birth, but in the promise and in the living as well. Christmas is not just a moment, it’s every moment.