The other day I had the
pleasure of seeing the movie version of Rent, originally a Broadway musical. As
I was watching it, I couldn't help but compare the experience we have when we
go to the movies with what we experience in church, as we listen once again to
the Christmas story.
There is something special about sitting in a theater,
and letting the celluloid images carry you away. The movie makers are masters
at spinning illusions. You sit there in the darkened theater, and let the movie
makers cast their spell. And it's amazing what they can do to recreate the look
and the feel of far away places, or another period in history. This effect was
particularly striking in Rent, a story set in the East Village of Manhattan. I
later came to learn that most of the movie was filmed in San Francisco! It's amazing
what a few million dollars can do to recreate a neighborhood of New York at a
certain period. The costumes, the parties, the bars and restaurants. Yet, of course,
when the closing credits roll across the screen, and the theater lights comes
back on, you find yourself suddenly back in the all too familiar world of today.
And you realize that what you have just seen is in fact an illusion. Sure the
movies are wonderful, but are they real?
Ironically, of course, that
may be the same question that people ask about the Christmas story. Can we really
trust this message of peace on earth when there are so many signs of conflict,
alienation and war? Is the Christmas message for real, or is it like Rent, a work
of fiction that carries us away into a world of fantasy for an hour or so, enthralls
us for a season, but then fades away, leaving us on the first Sunday after Christmas
to face the harsh realities of a new year without any lasting assurance
that God's peace is real.
is wonderful, but is it real?
one wouldn't be a Christian if I didn't believe that the Christmas story is true.
In fact, the Christmas story contains more of the truth than is widely acknowledged.
More of the truth in fact than many people dare to hear. Far from taking us on
a flight of fancy, the biblical account of our Savior's birth lifts up the deepest
and most urgent realities of human life and reveals their inner meaning.
If we contrast the biblical narratives with great movies of our day and age, we
can instantly see the difference between these modern vehicles of entertainment
and the scriptures. The movies are tremendously successful in depicting the panorama
of human life, the scope and variety of its surface detail. A modern film maker
with a multimillion dollar budget can convey the look and feel of another time
and place. Whole imaginary worlds can be created in exacting detail.
By contrast the biblical narratives are stark and simple. The do not allow the
imagination to dwell on the detail of time or setting. The Bible does not offer
brilliant descriptions of scenes or costumes, landscapes or cityscapes. The Bible
is little concerned about the surface, and instead forces the reader beyond the
horizons of the here and now. The biblical writers were struggling to express
that which is beneath the surface and to reveal the fire that burns at the very
heart and center of life.
The biblical account of our Savior's birth
is typical. These passages are stark, short and forceful. They cut through the
surface in bold strokes to the very heart of the matter. One searches the scriptures
in vain for descriptions of the manger, we are given absolutely no detail to satisfy
your curiosity about what the baby Jesus looked like. The Bible tells us nothing
about the costumes of Mary and Joseph or those mysterious magi.
matter of fact, it takes great effort to read the Christmas story with clear eyes
and an open mind because our memories are so cluttered with the kind of detail
that prevent us from seeing what is actually going on in the original. We have
all been exposed to so many Christmas pageants, so many television specials, we
have come to know the Christmas story as it might be told by the film makers.
I'll wager that somewhere in the back of your mind you have a very clear idea
of what the three kings looked like, even though the Bible never calls them kings,
nor tells us there were three royal visitors to that stable.
If you grew
up like I did in a typical protestant church you can probably remember the exact
costumes that were packed and unpacked each year for the Christmas pageant, and
you may even be able to remember who played the parts of Mary and Joseph. In our
memories we still can see those characters arranged on the same chancel steps.
And if you grew up in an especially large, well financed church you may even remember
live animals in the living pageant, donkeys and camels and all, even though donkeys
and camels do not appear in the biblical narrative.
The biblical narrative
does not pause on that one brief moment in the manger when the animals and the
shepherds and the magi stood in silent adoration, as they do today in many a Christmas
pageant. The Bible does not even contain what we would properly call a manger
scene. Our Christmas pageant calls us back to a particular moment in time, whereas
the message of Christmas is for all time.
If we read the Christmas story
in the original we are taken into the very depths of our own experience where
the pain and the pleasure of a cold winter day are most intense. The Bible is
not about the circumstances of a particular time and place, its about all time.
It concerns those conflicting currents of our own inner life, those cross currents
of pleasure and pain that are finally resolved in the experience of God's love.
But first the pain.
In reconstructing the biblical story it
is most appropriate that we consider first the pain of Christmas, because the
pain is the first element we are likely to repress or ignore. Remember that the
magi who came to search out this new king were caught up in a fateful struggle
for power. Their visit was followed quickly and savagely by a company of Herod's
soldiers who slaughtered every male child under the age of two. The pain of that
tragedy belongs not to Christmas alone, but to the whole experience of humankind
stretching across the span of time: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing
and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more."
They were no more. Only days before,
the same inhabitants of Bethlehem has heard the promises of peace spoken by the
angels, "peace on earth, peace on earth, peace is at hand," they said.
But for the people of Bethlehem there was no lasting peace. And their tragedy
is repeated again and again in current events.
Few stories compare as
powerfully to this biblical narrative of the slaughter of innocents than accounts
of the slaughter of so many innocent civilians in the tiny villages of Sudan in
recent days and weeks. Innocent men women and children slaughtered while the world
debates how to stop the killing. This is the reality of the world in which we
live, a world in which the violence continues every day, in places like the Sudan,
or Iraq, or the Middle East, not far from Bethlehem itself.
the children that walk through our own city streets, children that grow up in
rat infested tenements, without the love or protecting care of parents who can
shelter them from the evils of the world. These real people live out the real
drama of Christmas, for in our time too there is no room for God's children at
the inn of human habitation.
The biblical writers were not talking
about a peace that results from turning our backs upon reality.
from it. The biblical narratives are all too real. The writers of the bible knew
that pain is very real and very near to all our hearts, even those of us who live
in the most comfortable surroundings. We too share in the loss of loved ones,
in the severing of friendships, in the pain and suffering that are an inevitable
part of every human life.
The story of Christmas is not about escaping
from the pain, it's about facing up to the pain and moving beyond it. The Christmas
story helps us to see beyond the pain and the violence to the pleasure and the
joy that lie at the very heart and center of life. The narrative moves quickly
beyond the trails of that hour. For the biblical writers came to believe that
the presence of God could be experienced right here in this all to painful world.
And that it was right here on earth that God's peace could be experienced most
powerfully and most directly.
Note that the Bible speaks not of a spiritual
kingdom, but of the toppling of governments and the defeat of the powers of death
and destruction that so often appear to rule our world. Our journey to Bethlehem
is not a sentimental journey, the message of Christmas is hard hitting and full
of hope. It expresses the deepest, strongest and most urgent desire of all humankind.
In the middle of it we find Mary's song: "My spirit rejoices in God
my Savior, for God has shown strength, has scattered the proud, has put down the
mighty from their thrones, and raised up those of low degree. God has filled the
hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent empty away."
These words sound more like the outcry of a firebrand and a revolutionary, than
the meek Mary whom we see on stage in the Christmas pageant.
was not a firebrand, she was quite simply caught up in that fire of hope that
burns within the passionate heart of all of God's people, that absurd hope that
justice may one day be realized, that the Prince of peace may one day rule this
planet with love.
And so the Christmas narratives have their special
character in depicting the extreme contrasts of pleasure and pain and of wrapping
up these deepest experiences of life in the singular reality of God. It seems
almost inevitable that the central event of Christmas is the birth of a child.
For childbirth is unique in this respect, it combines the most intense physical
pain with the most unspeakable joy. Most deep religious experience has this quality
too. It transcends our categories of pleasure and pain, success and failure, pointing
toward the God who redeems both these dimensions of life.
grapples with the unspeakable things, because it concerns that which is most intimate
and personal, because it reaches beyond the range of logic or reason, the ancient
imagery of the Bible will always convey a truth too deep for words.
is in fact the word which is worth a thousand pictures.
we speak of God's own child born in a manger; and we also speak of the child of
God born anew in each of us. In an age of science and technology, we still find
room for reference to that incredible promise: a young maiden shall conceive and
bear a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means God is with us.
It is ironic that the science of psychology has not invented a more convincing
vocabulary of the human spirit. And that the metaphors of the Bible still have
more power than the best of our poetry. These anthropomorphic, mythological tales
strike through the surface of mere things to the fire within, to the fire of pleasure
and pain that burns beneath the cool exterior of our lives. At Christmas we see
more clearly that at any other time: the fire burning in our own hearts is nothing
less than the fire of God's own everlasting love.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.