Christmas stories, like the Great Story itself, bear repeating. Especially when they’re childhood stories of traditions, there’s a lot of meaning in those. Even more so when it feels like a ritual, a practice that informs tradition. Sometimes the telling becomes the tradition. So hear me out: maybe I’m making a tradition of telling this story again.
When I was a child, we had a really nice crèche, a nativity scene that we put out at Christmas. There were lots of figures in it, 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. The living room.
They began their journey on the other side of the living room. Each day or two, when he remembered, my Dad would move them closer to the rest of the scene. They’d travel from end table to coffee table, across the great expanse of the piano, until they arrived at the manger 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. Once they arrived, it was time to take down the crèche and put it away until next year.
As a child, and especially as a teenager, I’m sure I found that whole thing kind of silly. More recently, I’ve come to realize how wise it was.
I wonder, sometimes, 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. Already within a day or two of December 25th, Christmas is over and packed away. All we want to do now is get on with the new year. 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 trudged in from the fields to see Jesus. There might have been more visitors, too, townsfolk or friends, curious strangers marvelling at a baby born in a stable.
The magi followed the star that first appeared with Jesus’ birth. It’s not like they could get there over night. In might even have taken a year or two. That’s why Herod, afraid of this promised “king,” says the story in Matthew’s gospel, ordered that all 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 an exciting childhood! Certainly more than one night.
I’m not suggesting that we should take the Christmas story more literally. It’s just that Christmas is so much bigger than God dropping into a manger one night. When we spend more time with the story, 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 isn’t just a moment that’s past, it’s the beginning of something new.