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Tell me the real Christmas story

It’s time to get to the heart of the Christmas story—God with us in our broken world.
I have a confession to make. The Christmas story really, really annoys me. Not the actual Christmas story, but the nonsense story we sing about and see in nativity plays and Christmas cards this time of year.

You know the one: with three kings sitting next to some shepherds in a clean barn, surrounded by quiet animals. The mysteriously spotless and shiny baby, with a big smile, fast asleep in some comfy-looking hay, next to his middle-aged parents, the little drummer boy in the corner and pristine snow on the ground.

I’m talking about the story where you expect Santa, the two lobsters from the Love Actually nativity play, singing angels, and all the other ridiculous things we’ve made up to go along with the Bible’s Christmas account (that’s right, the Bible never actually mentions any angels singing, just like there’s no mention of three kings, or an innkeeper).

What’s happened with the Christmas story we hear is people have cleaned it p to make it more ‘acceptable’. It’s the Hollywood version—and that’s not the story I want to hear at Christmas.

Tell me the old, old story

The story I want to hear is the story of a teen mum, probably somewhere between 13 and 16, giving birth to a bastard (as far as the rest of the world was concerned). The story of a confused carpenter, a highly religious man, becoming dad to someone else’s child in full knowledge he was risking becoming an outcast in his society.

It’s the story of a woman screaming through labour pains as she gives birth in a dirty spare room (possibly a cave) used to house animals. The story of how the saviour of the world was placed in an animal’s food bowl and the only people who recognised his coming were poor, smelly shepherds. And what they found was not an unhuman child who was unworried and silent when suddenly woken by noisy farm animals, but a helpless, crying baby unable to lift its own head or feed itself.

It’s the story of how when the Messiah first visited God’s official home on earth he wasn’t recognised by those who believed they were God’s appointed religious leaders, but by an old man and woman. Simeon and Anna, two otherwise unknown, ordinary people, waiting every day for decades, both carrying on, never knowing when their prayers would be answered—devout but unknown people who appear briefly and fade quickly from the story, but with a key role.

Then, many months later, some mystics from a strange, foreign land turn up. There are an unknown number of them and they’re certainly not kings. They’re a group of astrologers, utterly un-Jewish, the type of Gentiles, in fact, who quite possibly could have been put to death under Levitical law. And were probably a little shocked that their several year journey to meet a divinely promised king turned out to be a visit to a toddler who needs his nappy changed.

This is a story with only one king in it, only one powerful person, showing their power. And he (Herod) is a raging, power-hungry despot who murders babies.

Emmanuel—God with us

That’s the story I want to hear. Why? Why is the other story so irritating? It’s not some desire to be historically accurate (well, just a little) or to ruin other people’s fun. Rather, it’s because I’m sick of watering down Christmas, steadily reducing this incredible event to some bland myth full of acceptable people.

The true Christmas story isn’t clean or acceptable—it’s a very human story of a broken world. But that’s also what makes it so much more incredible and so much more worth celebrating.

The mass of Christ is not for bland carols of happy people singing about joy. It is a story that takes us to the heart of God and God’s attitude towards us and creation. To God, who cares about each of us individually, no matter who we are and what we’re going through. God who is prepared to live alongside us in our broken world, to get down into the minutiae of our lives, to work with us in a mind-blowing way—not to bring brief happiness or fleeting quiet, but complete peace, hope and joy. 

At Christmas time we are not given the tale of a distant, out-of-touch king eating well, receiving powerful guests and dominating his subjects.

Instead, we are reminded of struggling young mums, looked down on by society at their most vulnerable time. We are reminded of the homeless and of refugees. We are reminded of labourers, foreigners of different religions and the elderly, who were chosen by God to welcome Jesus above the rich, powerful or religious. Of people who waited faithfully for years, never giving up on the idea that God would answer their prayers. We are reminded of the helpless, as God became helpless; the suffering, as God suffered; the hopeful who saw hope, as God came to earth.

That, to me, is a story I want to hear.

Not the story of a distant deity. This is the story of Emmanuel, God with us—completely, fully, totally with us.

by Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 10 December 2016, pp20-21
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.

Ponder This

  • Simeon and Anna earnestly sought God and waited years, even decades, for an answer to their prayers that turned out to be an eight-day-old baby. Are you waiting on God? God will answer, but it might be an unexpected time or way.
  • The shepherds found Jesus in a cave, in a food trough, not a home full of shiny ornaments or a church. Where are you looking for Jesus this Christmas?
  • We dress up Christmas in decorations and fill the day with busyness. What can you do to make time and space to find this unexpected God, here with us at Christmas?