Away in a mangle
Before I go any further with this blog post*, I want to say that I love Christmas. I really love it. I love the cheesy Christmas music, the extravagant food, the decorations (my Eurovision-themed tree is legendary)… I can’t get enough of it. If you read this before Christmas, I’ll be a ball of barely contained excitement. If it’s after the 25th, then I’ll be all mopey. I blame my parents.
However, there’s one thing that gets my goat over the festive period: the endless focus on the periphery instead of focusing on the core. There are so many things that have become synonymous with the story of Christmas in the Bible and these seem to have taken over. Often, Christmas is all about the donkey, the kings and the innkeeper, and not about Jesus at all (and I say this as a former nativity play innkeeper – I wasn’t on for long, so I shamelessly built my part to buy myself some more stage time). And that’s before we get to all the new additions to the story: penguins, octopuses, Lord Sugar… We’ve mangled Christmas.
Some much-loved Christmas songs add things to the narrative which aren’t all together helpful. ‘Away in a Manger’ is one such culprit – how do we know Jesus didn’t cry? And don’t get me started on ‘Little Donkey’. I mean, a little donkey, carrying Mary, following a star? Really?
I know some of you will be fuming by this point, and I’m being deliberately provocative, but take a moment to think it through. The Bible Christmas story has no donkey, no innkeeper, no kings apart from Herod. What it does have is God’s promised saviour come to live with his people. It’s a life-changing story, one that promises eternal life.
What I’m getting at, in my roundabout, ranty way, is this: we have reduced the greatest story we can tell – the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ – to a series of clichés and non-Bible sentiments. The world is crying out to hear this story of salvation, so let’s tell it with all the shock, surprise, joy, drama, grief, happiness and life of the biblical account. This awesome, powerful story doesn’t need a donkey or a badly acted innkeeper. It needs people willing to share the good news and the difference it has made to them. Here’s some suggestions:
Read the Bible
It sounds obvious, but how much do we really explore the Christmas story with children and families. Sometimes it’s just there in the background while we do make cotton wool sheep or bake Christmas biscuits. Let’s get children wondering about the story: I wonder why God told the shepherds first about Jesus… I wonder what Mary thought when the wise men visited…
Tell the whole story
Christmas is only the start of the story, or the start of the middle… Whatever, it’s not the whole story. Christmas is the ideal time to talk about Easter too – what Jesus came to and how much God loves the whole world. Maybe you could explore what the angel says to the shepherds in Luke 2:10–12 – what is a saviour? What did Jesus do when he grew up?
Share with families
Parents and carers will recognise some of the emotions Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah go through at Christmas – use these to help families experience some of the shock and joy of the story.
In a world that promotes certain fashions and lifestyles, the Christmas story is an inclusive one – help children to see that this is part of their story. Whatever their lives are like, the Christmas story and the coming of Jesus is for them. God included the poor and the wealthy, the wise and the uneducated, the insignificant and the leaders to be part of the story. And he invites them too.
So, as we welcome children, young people and families to our church communities this Christmas, let’s make this message of salvation and grace be foremost in our services, parties and events. Let’s allow Jesus to shine through this Christmas.
Alex Taylor is Children’s Ministry Trainer for the Diocese of London and is addicted to Christmas cake.
* Well, it’s more like a thinly disguised rant.