Once Upon a Time

Picture of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Last Christmas Eve I attended church. It was the sort of church one often sees these days: chairs where there used to be pews, a worship band instead of a choir, skinny jeans rather than vestments, and exposed ductwork in the place of vaulted ceilings and stained glass. In other words, it was your garden-variety contemporary congregation.

Just before the message, the pastor invited all the children to come on stage and listen to someone read from a picture book about a mouse who discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I’m afraid that I can’t recall the details about the storyline. Only that it was unmemorable. Indeed, if there was anything at all remarkable about the tale, it was the church’s assumption that the Bible’s own account of Christ’s nativity did not possess enough wonder to capture a child’s imagination. I find this hard to understand.

C. S. Lewis described the incarnation as “a myth which is also a fact.” By this he did not mean that the events were non-historical but that the historical facts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection reflect the great themes of myth and poetry. Lewis calls this a marriage of heaven and earth: “. . . claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

It is a tragic twist of irony, not to mention a monumental folly, that the church has lost confidence in the power of its own story. Perhaps the reason is that we have convinced ourselves that the old story is too familiar. Like those who turn on the television only to find a rerun, we fear that it will not hold our attention. We think we need a new story. What we fail to recognize is that it is precisely the familiarity of this ancient storyline that makes it so captivating. The tale of a god who comes to earth disguised in human form is one of the oldest storylines in history. It speaks to the ancient heart of the human race. The particular wonder of the Christian story is that it is no disguise. This God actually becomes flesh and dwells among us. It is also no myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”

What we need is not a new story but renewed confidence in the old story that has been entrusted to us. To use the Bible’s language, what we need is faith. We live in a world that is starved for wonder. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the other stories which occupy our imagination. They are tales of super-beings and superpowers, angels and demons. They depict a world where the dead come back to life and evil is vanquished. Yet it is a world where God, if he exists at all, is conspicuously absent. That is to say, we are immersed in stories which not only reflect our dreams but also our disease.

It is time we put the picture books away and returned instead to the story that begins: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph….”

5 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. The story is our everyday story, isn’t it? I tend to think though, the high holy days, as they may have been called, aren’t for me necessarily. Rather, for those that don’t usually enter the hallowed sanctuaries during the year. Yes, we want the message to be straighforward, the good news, God honoring, worshipful, respectful, it tells a story. Which should say to the one time visitor or the CEO, that sees all the pagentry, “this is what it’s like everyday for believers.” It’s Handel’s Messiah everyday for us or it should be. For those that enter, it’s a taste. Come and see, the Lord is good! How its displayed or said, yeah, we miss the target sometimes, but like Paul said, either way, somehow, Christ is still being preached.

  2. Thank you, once again for the blessing of your insight regarding the advent leading up to Christ’s birth. I remember as a newly awakened Christian bringing my teenage son along with my younger son to a Christmas service and hearing from him afterward: “It’s always the same message” as a new believer I was shocked because I was so enthralled and he was so bored. So is the answer a grander interpretation with more theatre, more modern music or more dramatic preaching? No, because this was the kind of church we already were in. Yes, I suppose for any non-believer, no matter the “staged story,” the birth of Christ is boring. Yet, are we not admonished to continue to tell it rightly? And why? Because, this “boring story” is not only true, it has the power to awaken the dead! In Christ’s Name. Amen

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