It's Christmas! (nearly...)
Christmas comes but once a year…and every year it seems to get earlier and earlier. It’s never too soon to start thinking and planning for the biggest event in the Christian calendar – so here’s some ideas from Alex Taylor to freshen up your yuletide activities.
The annual nativity play; a perfect storm of tea towels, tinsel wings, donkey ears and an innkeeper intent on building his part. Add in mince pies, ‘Little Donkey’ and Christingles ,and church at Christmas can be a joyous place. However, children and families from outside our church community visiting for the first time could be forgiven for being no wiser about the ‘true story’ of Christmas than when they stepped through the door. It’s not that churches aren’t sharing the true story of Christmas, but sometimes we can make it into a visual aid, just another of the accoutrements of Christmas in church. Our nativity plays might not include an octopus or Santa Claus, but does what we do in church reflect the power and importance of this game-changing episode in God’s story?
The story of the incarnation sits at the heart of the story of God and his kingdom, alongside the events of Easter. In coming to Earth, Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent to save the people of God. In Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the Christmas story, Gabriel, the angels, Simeon and Anna all speak of this – Jesus is the saviour promised by God. Mary and Joseph obey God, knowing they are playing their part in the salvation of the whole world. God’s plan has been leading up to this point – it was foreseen by prophets hundreds of years before. King David himself knew that an eternal king would come from his family line. New Testament authors from Matthew to the writer of Hebrews piece together the teachings of old to show that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus himself does it on the road to Emmaus.
This is the turning point of history – the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. God becomes man and sets in play the ultimate rescue. This is Christmas: an audacious, shocking, topsy-turvy solution to a terrible, seemingly insurmountable problem. But is that the message we put across?
Before we go any further, I should say that I love Christmas. Actually, I really love Christmas. I love the story, the services, the food, the decorations (my Eurovision-themed tree is legendary), the presents and the time spent with family and friends. I was one of those children who woke up at 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep again. However, despite my love of Christmas, I often can’t reconcile what the Church offers at Christmas and what Christmas is really all about. The outrageous drama of the biblical account of the incarnation has become window-dressing to a sentimentalised and sanitised version of the ‘true story’ of Christmas. There’s no power left – it’s been diluted with tea towels, tinsel wings and innkeepers (none of which are in the Bible, funnily enough). So when children and families who aren’t part of a church join our communities at Christmas, they’re presented with a comfortable and familiar tale which demands nothing of them. It’s a tale that they can engage with for a while and then leave behind when the lights are turned off and the decorations taken down.
There is an argument which says that the trappings of Christmas form a bridge between those from outside our church communities and the story of Jesus coming to earth. And that’s true. A story stripped of all the things that tradition has built up might be unrecognisable to someone who isn’t used to church. Families might come to our church for a ‘traditional’ Christmas experience and, by ignoring those elements, we could alienate them. So where do we find a good middle ground?
Tell the whole story
Christmas is only part of God’s story – don’t ignore the rest! Many people view the story of the Bible in five or six ‘acts’ – key blocks of God’s great plan: creation and fall (some see this as two separate acts), Israel (the outworking of God’s promise to Abraham), Jesus (his birth, death and resurrection), the Church (from Acts onwards) and the future (when Jesus returns and God lives with his people). Sitting at the centre of this story, Jesus’ birth is the ideal chance to look back at the problem of sin and why Jesus came to earth, and look forward to the fulfillment of the solution and the ultimate destination of living with God forever.
Instead of a traditional service of carols and readings, why not put together a service which tells of God’s love for his people and desire to restore the broken relationship. Use a good spread of Bible passages in such a service and incorporate carols and well-known hymns which are easy to learn, to illustrate these readings:
CHRISTMAS IS AN AUDACIOUS, SHOCKING, TOPSY-TURVY SOLUTION TO A SEEMINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE PROBLEM. BUT IS THAT THE MESSAGE WE PUT ACROSS?
Creation: Genesis 1:1–2:4
God’s original intention was to live in harmony in a perfect relationship with humanity.
Fall: Genesis 3
Humans went their own way.
Israel: Genesis 15:1–6; Deuteronomy 6:1–9; 2 Samuel 7:1–16; Jeremiah 2:1–8; Isaiah 9:2–7
God’s promise to Abraham; Israel in relationship with God; Israel strays from God; God’s promise of restoration.
Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection: Luke 2:8–21; 23:13–43; 24:1–12
Jesus is Emmanuel: God with his people. He is crucified, but rises from death.
The Church: Acts 2:1–12, 43–47
The Holy Spirit comes and the followers of Jesus grow into a Church that we, today, are part of.
The future: Revelation 21:1–7
God and his people live together for ever.
The offer of salvation that Jesus’ birth sets in motion is for everyone, including those who come to our churches at Christmas time. Let’s tell them the good news!
You could also use the gifts of the wise men to illustrate the bigger story of God and his people. These were strange gifts for a baby, but they reveal the significance of his birth:
Gold A gift for a king. Jesus was the king promised in the Old Testament (for example, Isaiah 9:6-7), but he wasn’t the kind of king that the Jewish people were waiting for. They wanted a warrior – someone to get rid of the Romans, who were in charge of their land. However, Jesus was more a servant kind of king!
Frankincense A sweet-smelling incense used to worship God. As well as being born a human, Jesus is God, Emmanuel – God with us. Jesus is also our high priest (see Hebrews 4:14– 16); he enables us to come to God freely, because he has mended our relationship.
Myrrh A bitter ointment for the dead. Jesus’ death is as important as his birth. Jesus saved his people, because of the events of Easter. That’s why the angels called him ‘saviour’.
Don’t focus on the peripheries
Sometimes our attention can be taken by things which aren’t essential to the story, either because they’re fun or we think that they will appeal to visitors. As mentioned earlier, these can be useful bridges into the story of Jesus coming to earth, but we shouldn’t let our focus be taken by them completely. There are many people who have successfully put together live-action nativities. Christmas – the Story in Cardiff is one example the-story.org. These are events which use this traditional storytelling method in an immersive way. Viewers of the nativity are drawn in by seeing the action unfold before their eyes. The traditional elements of Christmas are used to help them engage in the wider narrative at play – the coming of the Messiah and the salvation of the world. Another example of this is a Christmas presentation for primary schools – where churches or schools workers open up the story of Christmas for children
You might have fewer resources available and not be able to produce something as involved as a live-action nativity or Christmas presentation. However, you can still use the trappings of Christmas to open up the life-changing story of Emmanuel. For example, you could use a traditional nativity as a starting point for retelling the wider story of why Jesus came to earth as a human. Stop the play at various points and ask the children how they might have felt, or why they think certain things are happening. Sing a carol and then look more closely at the words; many children and families know the words to ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ or ‘Silent Night’, but might not understand the story behind them.
Find out the back story
The Christmas story is a supernatural one, but also one that many can identify with. How many parents have been overawed by the prospect of taking care of a tiny new baby? How many soap operas have storylines that mirror Joseph’s feelings when he finds out that Mary is pregnant? When a big event is happening, how quickly do we rush to discover what’s happening?
Explore these ideas and others as you open up the story of Jesus coming to earth as a baby. Invite a new parent to come and talk to your children’s group or church service about how they felt when they found out they were going to have a child. What was going through their minds when they held their child for the very first time? Draw out some of the feelings of Mary and Joseph at this turbulent time. Help children to understand the reaction of the shepherds, leaving their sheep to rush off and find the saviour by asking them what they do when they hear something exciting is happening.
THE OUTRAGEOUS DRAMA OF THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNT HAS BECOME WINDOW DRESSING TO A SENTIMENTAL VERSION OF THE TRUE STORY
Explore what status a shepherd held in first-century Judea (they weren’t well thought of and were often avoided by those of a higher social class) and help children and families to see how topsy-turvy it was for God to announce the news of Jesus’ birth to these people. Comment on how the shepherds can represent everyone – it doesn’t matter who we are or what we do, the good news about Jesus is for us all! We don’t have to have a big car or the right trainers, Jesus came to earth to save us.
The wise men were also unusual choices to discover the birth of Jesus. Do some research on the magi so that children and families are able to understand more of who they were. They weren’t kings, they weren’t Jews and they didn’t even follow God, yet they travelled for miles and miles to reach Bethlehem. Even if we’re not part of a church or know God – God’s great plan to save his people includes us!
So, as we approach Christmas, let’s free the story from just being a window-dressing to tradition. God’s plan to save his people is liberating and life-changing, and children and families who come to our churches deserve to hear this story, not one that’s an add-on to a traditional Christmas. Look at the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men with new eyes, and tell it with courage. Let God speak through this most amazing episode in the history of the world.