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Christmas is Wonderful, but is it Real?

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.

Christmas is wonderful, but is it real?

I for 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.

As a 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.

Or consider 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.

Far 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.

But Mary 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.

Because faith 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.

This is in fact the word which is worth a thousand pictures.

At Christmas 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.

More about Christmas

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.