What is the point of a story!
I love a good story, whether it be written, in a poem or play or on the big screen. Stories can reveal deep truths about who we are and where we have come from and even where we might be heading. How we use stories is important, for they can reveal something to us about life, about our life with each other. We have an incredible history and tradition of storytelling, found in our literature and music and our faith communities, within our families and around the camp fire.
Someone recently suggested that a truer name for our species rather than Homo sapiens might be Homo Narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats–and they in turn can listen to ours.
One of my favorite stories at this time of year is by Charles Dickens, called “The Christmas Carol”, which I am sure you all know, even if it’s the Muppet version.
What you might not know is that Charles Dickens was essentially a social reformer who sought change in a society which was hugely divided. Where the poor were actively discriminated against, left to fend for themselves, while the wealthy were able to prosper in peace and comfort. He wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, about a wealthy and miserable old miser who changed his life after a radical experience. As Keith Rowe suggests, Dickens hoped this fantasy story would do more good than all the political pamphlets flying around at that time.
Let me outline it for you in case you have forgotten.
Ebenezer Scrooge is an ardent supporter of hard work or the workhouses for those without work. He believes that poverty is just the lot of the poor, and that the poor are dispensable to society, leaving more resources for people like him. But things change when, through a dream encounter with his dead partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas past present and future, he is converted to a new way of living. He is particularly confronted when he becomes aware of the fate of Tiny Tim, the crippled son of his long serving clerk Bob Cratchit, in a world that tips people on to the scrap heap. In the end Scrooge, Dicken’s symbol of the greedy wealthy, does what he has never done before and provides Christmas food and festivity to the Crachit household. He is converted to a more generous and less greedy way of living by the revelations he has seen.
In the end, while the Crachit family are the victims of neglect and an unjust system they seem to know the true meaning of Christmas unlike Scrooge. And the message is clear. Dickens expected the true followers of Jesus to seek to change the way society operates and share their resources, rather than hoarding them for themselves. And he challenges those that talk the talk but do not walk the walk.
As Tiny Tim remarks in the story,
“He hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Not only is Tiny Tim sick just because the Crachits don’t have enough money to cure him, but he hopes that others can see him as some kind of walking reminder of the doings of Jesus. Ouch!
What a story, one that resonates with us, even in the 21st century, and even in the Muppet version has a truth to it that is quite confronting
We have another story today, an incredible story about a birth of a baby that changed the world. And two story tellers in Luke, who we heard in the reading, and Matthew, both writing about 100 AD, long after Jesus died. And similar to the Christmas Carol, it is a story that challenges us, living in this place and in this time.
They are stories rich in colour, weaving together fantasy, mystery and reality to bring a message of love and hope for the world.
From Matthew there are wise men from another country, a star to follow at night but also the cruel king Herod whose fear of Jesus is palpable. Who sets out to eliminate this threat after the birth is announced. In Luke’s story we hear about shepherds in the fields, an angelic chorus, the promise of peace and a mother who loves God and her new born son.
Both accounts are full of earthly things, and some mystical things. But who is the child at the centre? Matthew describes him as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is at the centre of the story, the character extraordinaire. A revelation to us about where God is to be found and what God needs from us. It is all there if we take a step closer and have a look.
For these birth stories are not really about a baby at all but about a man, called Jesus and about his life in God and in the world. The birth stories reveal this Jesus, who lived and died in 1st century Judea, but who more than anyone since has shown a new way to live with one another.
This new way is the way of love, grounded in the earthy world that he knew and in the indwelling spirit of God that guided him. For Jesus was born into an ancient and ongoing struggle. On one side stood the kings and their elite company, which included the priests and the Pharisees while on the other were found the prophets, the oppressed poor and the excluded. He was born at a time when Rome was at its most powerful. Caesar Augustus, after bringing peace to Rome was hailed the Son of God and saviour. Law and order was sustained by ruthless suppression of people’s rights and many just disappeared.
Two so called religions guided how people would function in the world. One was a religion of empire, of wealth, rules and rituals, where the rich got richer and the poor poorer. Power ruled over everything. And then there was the religion of Jesus, a religion that united all God’s people together in bonds of love, a religion of creation, of peace. This religion was not a set of rules but a way of life, a new way of living together. And people had to choose.
So rather than just a pretty depiction on a Christmas card, the birth stories found in Luke and Matthew are there to open our eyes to the truth of Jesus and therefore the truth about God. This is what the gospel writers wanted to do, not report an historical event but give us a grand vision, to see a life that has transformed and continues to transform the world. That transformed each of them.
They are not history, but something much more powerful. They are what many call parables, calling forth all they know of the life of Jesus found in the gospels.
If we examine them with new eyes, we will see that they actually reflect this reality. They challenge the religion of empire. Jesus is seen as a defenseless baby whose family can’t find accommodation and when they do it is in a smelly stable. The poor shepherds of the hills are the ones who hear the message of his birth, rather than kings or rulers. There are lots of animals, not there for the children’s amusement, but to show that all of nature is included. We have in the story a woman, Mary, and the Magi, who are foreigners of varying age, and who come bearing gifts. In fact Jesus and Mary themselves are refugees escaping persecution. We see a powerful and ruthless King Herod, a threatening presence. And we have the angels singing about peace on earth and goodwill hovering over the whole scene, representing the God of all creation, of Jesus and the hope that this represents for all of us.
A beautiful, evocative, and actually quite subversive story when you think about it. Much like Dickens they have also weaved into their tale a counter cultural and revolutionary message.
So the question now for us all, is what to do with it. Are we to let the story turn into a nice little fantasy, or revisit it every year as a reminder of what is possible, in a world full of pain, injustice and war?
I believe we should let the stories remain for they can speak to us in deeper ways if we let them. The stories are not just for our enjoyment, although we do enjoy and embrace them, but to challenge us about what really matters and jolt us into action.
The spirit of goodwill at Christmas time infects even the cynical to believe in the possibility of something different and better. Peace on earth, goodwill to all people and the possibility of hope and transformation. The challenge is to take this spirit and make the moment last.
Like Scrooge, who changed his life and those around him after his experiences, we are called to do the same.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Thank you Rob Day and Keith Rowe for inspiration!