Perhaps it’s the effect of the passage of many Christmases; or that the words Merry Christmas sound more and more affected the more one hears it. Of course these observations may be way off the mark but I pose the question none-the-less, to see what readers think. Which Christmas story do we remember—and celebrate? Is it the one when we receive the gift we had secretly wished for since June of every year? Or is it the one when we received out first meaningful kiss and a follow-up Christmas card to prove the kiss was real?
For the purposes of this article we shall assume that we are speaking of December 25, the day we are told the Christ child came into the world. We believed that God had finally sent his chosen—His son—to redeem His people. We grew up believing this basic Christian story without question.
Over the years there have been many beautiful sermons, delivered by brilliant priests and pastors, aimed at helping fellow worshippers capture the true meaning of Christmas. Sometimes these sermons were founded and delivered after much thought and insight. They were delivered with a zeal and passion that often left the congregation wanting more.
Yet, I can’t seem to recall how the main characters in the story of Christmas were described. The character descriptions were of two origins. First, there were the persons who were directly connected to the event—including the angel. Second, those characters that were added later: the inn keeper and the three wise men. Characters, we are told, are the most important ingredient in any story. Their description helps to lay the foundation for the larger plot even as they tickle the imagination. As a child my most vivid recollection of the story of Christmas was the three wise men that followed the star to Bethlehem, the place where the big birth event was to take place. I’ve often wondered what these three wise men thought when they came upon the place of birth and saw that it was a lonely manger. Perhaps the little animal shelter, well lit with the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child all quietly together had significance beyond the words that were available to these shepherds.
It was clearly a message designed to emphasize that it is not where one was born that mattered most, but whether there was a special spiritual dimension to one’s birth. For instance, as we ponder the story of Christmas it still amazes us that that inn keeper had no private place of his own better than a manger with straw and sheep and cows. It bears repeating that what men in that part of the world seem to price most highly is a woman’s virginity. Once Mary was with child it was assumed that her virginity was history. Could that and the senior-looking Joseph have accounted for the inn keeper’s displeasure at seeing them together that night?
Mary and Joseph were an unlikely pair; that much we are told in the Holy Bible. Although he was much older than Mary he possessed a crucial distinction, especially for those who are familiar with the whole prophesy. Joseph was a descendant of David to whom God had promised that his generation would build the New Jerusalem. But Mary and Joseph were not the only characters not fully described. What about the angel who spoke to Joseph and Mary, and why did he choose a separate time and place to address them? Why not speak to them jointly since they were both involved in the plot?
What else do we know about the three wise men? Were they the shepherds who were looking after their sheep when they perceived a brighter than usual star in the heavens that evening? Would shepherds simply abandon their sheep to the wolves and the dishonest people around the countryside to follow a star? Shepherds were very hardy people and the rearing of sheep was a prestigious occupation. A man’s worth then was the value of his animals. Shouldn’t more be known and told about these wise men who felt something new and strange was about to happen and which needed their expensive gifts?
These questions are asked for the purpose of teasing the mind to reach beyond the superficial partying and gift giving at Christmas and instead to seriously contemplate why such an important event as the birth of one who is supposed to be the saviour of mankind is treated so frivolously, even disrespectfully, by so many? Perhaps the standard response of non-believers is that ancient prophets merely repeated the script they were handed. It was left to them to interpret and spread the message of a child who was to be born in a lowly place and later would rise to make a difference in the world. Perhaps that was how God wanted it. But why? The answer most often given is that God chooses the lowly to execute his great miracles.
Christian preachers love to remind us that God has called upon us to be our brother’s keeper. The need for Saint Lucia’s poor this Christmas is a job and a halfway decent place to live. The Christmas story has the power to remind us that poverty and poor housing are merely a phase in our lives. How we love and raise our children is more important by far than the humble surroundings of their birth. That may be the reason Jesus came into this world as he did. It is a powerful message filled with symbolism. It is that message, that symbolism, that we Christians must choose to remember as December 25, 2016 approaches. Merry Christmas everybody. May we see one another again come January 2017—and in better circumstances!