Imagine the Christmas Story Differently
We have a holiday tradition at the Centre for Christian Studies of everyone on staff offering a reflection on something. It might be a favourite Christmas carol, or a most memorable gift. This year we gave ourselves the challenge of re-imagining the Christmas story. In this season of imagination, we offer these ponderings and “what ifs” to inspire, to trouble, and to spark your own meditations on that ancient story.
Come On In, You’re Welcome – Lori Stewart
Luke’s story of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem isn’t the same as the ones of refugees who’ve had to flee their homes when soldiers start bashing in village doors; or those who’ve had to hide in the mountains, constantly on the move; or people I know who’ve experienced unsettled life in refugee camps far from home. However, like them, Mary and Joseph don’t have a choice about leaving their own home, or having the risk of traveling while pregnant, or of arriving in Bethlehem with no family waiting to take them in. And Matthew’s version of their story has them fleeing to another strange land, with a newborn Jesus, to avoid a violent end at Herod’s hands.
The homelessness of the holy family comes up in a poem called “Dene Christmas” by René Fumoleau. As a young priest René asks a Dene artist, “Could you draw Christmas night as if it had happened here?
“I don’t know, what’s on your mind?”
“…Let’s pretend that Joseph and Mary travelled with four dogs and a toboggan…they arrived here. They asked here and there where they could stay but there was no room for them. They crossed Jackfish Creek, pitched their tent on the other side, and that’s where Jesus was born.”
René checks back with John in the weeks leading up to Christmas but there is still no drawing. Finally he observes, “John, you don’t feel like doing it, do you?”
“No, not really…the drawing doesn’t make sense to me.”
“You see, if Mary and Joseph had come to our village, they could have walked into any Dene house, and the people would have said, ‘Come on in, you’re welcome.’”
I wonder how the story of Jesus’ birth would be different if there were kind villagers who took Mary and Joseph into their homes? I wonder how the experiences of refugees would be different if they arrived in communities like those of the Dene?
My Angels Won’t Stand Up – Michelle Owens
My favourite angel on the Christmas tree has been with me at least 25 years. She once had a loop from which to hang, but it is long broken. She is made of canvas, and painted – my mother has always been fond of folk art style Christmas ornaments, and been generous with gifting them. For years, instead of dangling from a branch, she sits propped up among the branches.
My other tipsy angels are wooden – these ones have their hangers, and are meant to hang on the wall. Instead, I stubbornly prop them up among the snow globes and wait for the inevitable. How rude of them to defy my expectations!
Angels in scripture are defiantly unexpected as well. They pop up and interrupt the scene – interrupt the lives of people with such disruption that their opening proclamation is to sooth the fears their appearance has caused. I imagine them as fierce, or stern – blazing with light a cacophony of hallelujahs. Proclaiming startling news of an unexpected child to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds.
But what if I let my own angels lead my imagination? What if the angels have been alongside all along? What if it is their fragility and imperfection that provokes fear? Facing the news that we cannot rely forever on others to carry the project of God’s justice? What if there is no supernatural or superlatively talented leader who is going to discover the solution for climate change, or church decline or lead the resistance to empire? What if we must carry the seed of justice within us, like a woman carrying a child in her womb? What if we have to birth justice into the world ourselves – knowing the labour will hurt and the outcome is not certain?
What if the angels come to us imperfect, occasionally falling down – mumbling and hard to hear? Sometimes vulnerability is more terrifying than strength. Sometimes the message of hope is passed with a trembling hand into our own. Sometimes the angel needs to be picked up and propped up, or mended.
My angels won’t stand up.
Don’t be afraid.
I Assume There Were Angels – Scott Douglas
“Thank you for meeting with us!” Lucy repeated, raising her voice to compensate for the old woman’s poor hearing. “It’s truly an honour.” Matt nodded in agreement.
The old woman looked at them, waiting for the pleasantries to be over.
“As I’m sure you know,” Lucy explained, “your son has had a huge impact on us, personally and politically – and not just us, but all of our friends. Every time we gather, we read out some of his best sayings and teachings.”
“Tell her about the skit!” Matt blurted out.
“Something we’re working on. More of a pageant,” Lucy clarified. “Or even an epic drama. You see, our communities are really hungry for stories about your son. Narrative. So we were wondering what it was like when he was born. And given that you’re probably the only person still living who was actually there…”
“It must have been amazing, given how special he was! Were there angels? I assume there were angels.”
The old woman sucked her teeth. “After seven children, they all kind of blur together.”
“…OK, sure, sure. Um…” Lucy fumbled with her notes. “It happened in Bethlehem, though, right? Matt and I both agree that Bethlehem would be the most appropriate place, symbolically speaking.”
The old woman shrugged. “Sure.” Lucy wasn’t sure she’d heard the question, but that was OK. She was confident that Bethlehem was the appropriate place, symbolically speaking.
“And were you a virgin?” Matt asked. Lucy shot him a glance. They had agreed not to ask this question. “It’s just, you know, the prophet Isaiah said-…”
“Please excuse my friend,” Lucy interrupted. “We’re just really excited to be in the presence of the woman who gave birth to the person we admire more than anything.”
“He was the son of God,” the old woman said.
Ah, here we go, thought Lucy; this is the good stuff. “You mean that literally, right? You’re not just calling him the son of God because you’re a proud mama.”
“I’m calling him that because every [expletive deleted] parchment of Roman propaganda hails the [expletive deleted] Emperor as the son of a god, and he’s [expletive deleted] NOT!” The old woman fixed them with fierce glare. “That [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted], the Emperor, is as far removed from my boy as you can get, and I don’t care who knows it.”
Lucy and Matt quickly looked around to see who was in earshot.
“…OK. Um, cool. I think we’ve got what we need. Matt? Yeah? Cool. Thanks so much for taking the time. I think we can, um, go from here.”
“I was expecting more meek and mild,” said Lucy as they walked briskly away from the house, the old woman’s swearing growing fainter in the distance.
“That was a yes on the angel, right?” said Matt.
As Complicated A Way As Ever It Had Been – Marcie Gibson
Ten years ago, our youngest miracle baby had just turned one. She, who had had a complicated conception and a complicated birth and a complicated first year of growing, was small for her size, but very determined.
A baby in the congregation at Advent is always a joy, and particularly convenient for any quality pageant. She was it, that year, and though bigger than most newborns, she could pass – we hoped. But being older and wiser than the average pageant-baby-stand-in, she wasn’t going to blissfully be handed off to a teenage stranger dressed in shiny blue fabric with their bath-robed, crook-wielding fiancée. So it was, that my partner and I were chosen to play Mary and Joseph, under the pretense of keeping baby-Jesus quiet through the choral performance and mimed drama. My partner, being over 6 feet with short-clipped hair, made a fine Joseph. I, a little plumper and happier than she in a dress, was content to be Mary. Baby Miriam, dressed in a diaper and wrapped in a soft blanket, made a fine-if-squirmy Jesus. Her four-year-old brother chose to be some kind of angel-dragon combo and blended in with the other children.
On pageant day, we assembled ourselves and walked serenely down the aisle as the cherubim-choir sang, the pew candles glowed, and the organ resonated across the vaulted ceiling. For the most part, the performance went off without a hitch. We managed to keep baby-Jesus hushed by sneaking Cheerios from my pocket, and it wasn’t until we were most of the way back up the main aisle that she loudly proclaimed she wanted to nurse (from Joseph, who was the birthing/breastfeeding mama). As we sat in the back pew, happy to oblige Jesus, and relieved to be through the performance, we glanced around the congregation. There were a number of older lesbian congregational matriarchs quietly crying. Tears of joy, tears of affirmation, tears that finally they could see themselves in the queer story of Christmas, in as complicated a way as ever it had been in the beginning.
Whether Joseph is a non-bio dad or a gender-fluid birth mom; whether Mary is surrogate-for-God or parent-mama or birth-mama or someone-we-don’t-yet-even-have-a-name-for; Creator is on the move in our lives, imagining the story differently, inviting us to imagine and play a part, too.
- In 2019, Sydenham Street United Church in Kingston, celebrated its 20th year as an Affirming Congregation, and an inspiration and support to other Affirming ministries.
More Animals Please! – David Lappano
Imagining the Christmas story differently. Okay. Of course the canonical Bible itself imagines this episode differently. Mark is not at all interested in the tradition of assigning special spiritual importance to birth stories, Matthew and Luke tell very different detailed accounts, and John philosophically-poetically combines the ‘birth’ of Jesus with the birth of existence.
Personally, I love the accounts in Luke and Matthew so thinking about how to tell this story differently will be a matter of highlighting aspects I love or that continually challenge me.
The birth narratives are lovely little responses to some interesting theological questions: What if the God of creation and covenant and holy mystery – that absolute and infinite Spirit – became a finite and particular individual in history? What would that look like? What conditions would God inhabit? What happens if we combine power with love?
Matthew and Luke respond that God inhabits the plight of migration and the plight of being a minority at a distant edge of empire. With Mary God comes close to a woman’s fear and danger of perceived impropriety in a patriarchal world. With the magi and the shepherds God recognizes the kindness and faithfulness of strangers nurtured in other spiritual traditions, of those regarded as intellectuals and of those who labour with their hands.
I’ve always loved the detail about Jesus being laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Without understanding the political context of that family’s journey, as a child I understood that Jesus’ life began in harsh conditions away from the warmth and benefits of human society. But there was nevertheless something peaceful about the scene. Growing up, every Christmas crèche was full of animals and most retellings or dramatizations of the Christmas story featured a scene with Mary and Joseph and the newborn baby sharing a roof with animals. But alas, the animals are not mentioned in the biblical stories. Let’s put them in. More animals please! … and with talking roles; maybe make the angels animals like birds, goats, maybe even a snake (just to complicate the symbolism).
So here’s the thing – when I thought of this I was looking for signs that all creatures, not just humans, are implicated in God’s incarnate plan, part of the relationship that’s being established with this incarnation. But I also worried that this intervention would resemble the Disneyfying of scripture. It’s hard to imagine animals talking to Mary and Joseph without picturing a Disney-like scene – at least for most English speaking cultures. Again, I am faced with the challenge of what to add that isn’t culturally faddish or that actually dulls the power of the biblical witness.
As I grew in faith and understanding the detail of ‘born of a virgin’ – and Mary’s role as an icon of the church’s fantasy of female virtue, obedience and chastity – all really bothered me. I stand with many feminist critics concerned with how the church and society used Mary to reinforce attitudes that vilify women’s sexuality and diminish women’s agency.
The theological point, for me, of the divine conception is not a point about virginity or purity or sexuality per se, but rather a point about God’s unique and active role to bring Christ into the world with Mary. But I admit this is not an obvious reading of the scene, so…
I would include a sentence about how Mary and Joseph had long lived together and loved each other as couples do. Then I would add a scene where the angel Gabriel (who’s an animal remember) approaches other women with the proposal to carry this special child and they respectfully (or disrespectfully) decline, then finally Gabriel comes to Mary and the story proceeds. It would, to my mind, emphasize divine respect for consent and Mary’s will/choice/openness to this mystery.
And finally, I might just clearly set the scene in spring to avoid this historical befuddlement of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25.
Merry Christmas everyone!
The Seed in the Darkness – Cheryl Thiessen
A few words on the Winter Solstice. I like the idea of honouring the changing of the seasons and exploring how these changes correspond to changes in me right now. As the nights grow longer, I feel the pull to enter into the holy darkness, to turn deep within, away from noise and distraction and busyness; to rest and reflect, and, as author Joyce Rupp says, ‘to let this space be a safe enclosure of creative gestation’.
Brigit Anna McNeill, in her writing on Winter Solstice, says ‘This is the time where you are the embryo in the womb, the seed in the darkness . . . What needs attending to so you can rest well in your body, what needs loving so you can grow well in the light that is to come?’
I wish you all rest in the darkness, so that you can grow well into the light. Happy Solstice.
Her Heart Was Less Afraid – Janet Ross
Johanna had been called Jo since before she could remember. She was the child born to her father, Jacob, in the last part of his life when he praying hardest for a son. Jacob’s initial heartbreak when she was born could not be sustained as Jo won over his heart. For her part, Jo was happy to fill the long-awaited-son role. She stayed close by Jacob every day, learning his craft. Her attention to detail made their woodwork strong, beautiful and popular. In her work clothes, people mistook Jo for a boy, expecting the nickname to be short for “Joseph”. Because Jacob’s sister Judith was taken by the Romans when Jacob was young, Jacob felt safer when Jo passed as a guy.
A few years younger and 5 houses down, Maryam had become Jo’s best friend. Growing up, Mary loved to act out tales of her ancestors and she always jumped at the chance to see the theatre at Sepphoris. Her favourite stories were the unexpected pregnancies. From the angels’ announcements to the astonished looks of surprise, Mary could re-enact Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and even Samson’s mother.
Following the death of her mother, Maryam had been raised by her Auntie Elizabeth. When Mary heard the news of Uncle Zechariah, she could imagine in intimate detail her Auntie’s response. She immediately made plans to care for Elizabeth in her aunt’s last months of pregnancy.
It wasn’t hard for Jo and Maryam to imagine how their story would be told. It was hard to make the journey to Bethlehem. It was hard to hear the Innkeeper say no. It was hard to imagine moving away. It wasn’t hard for Jo to imagine repairing and building woodwork anywhere, even in Egypt. Because Mary knew the stories, her heart was less afraid.