“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining…” Sometimes a moment is so powerful that a hush falls over the crowd. Sometimes a whole throng of people turns, as one body, to stareslack-jawed at the sky. Christmas is such a moment.
It’s a simple story, quickly sketched in just 3 chapters of Matthew and Luke—147 verses in all. And yet, 2,000 years later, we still catch our breath to hear it told. Embedded in the little tale is enough to ponder annually for millennia. Here are a few takeaways from the greatest story ever told.
Christmas is a mystery play. Like the medieval acting troupes who traveled town to town and performed stories from the back of a rickety wagon, all of the characters in the drama are humble folk—their costumes tattered, their astonishment not eloquent, but too stunned for words. It’s not sophisticated, it’s hardly Shakespeare. Christmas is like a comet over a trailer park….
Christmas has all the best stories (and OK, to be fair, some of the worst schlock. If in doubt, sample some of the unknown Christmas movies on Netflix this year — you’ll see.) There’s a little bit of everything in a Christmas flick: magic, longing, delight, sometimes tragedy, always wonder, more often than not hilarity. Will Farrell and Chevy Chase will surely be playing on a continual loop all December, competing for the stupid hat prize and making us spew hot chocolate out of our noses.
One of our family’s favorite Christmas movies is The Polar Express. I have to admit, when it first came out I wasn’t enamored with the weird Tom-Hanks-as-cartoon thing they have going on, but the original Chris Van Allsburg book was brilliant, and the story is great. Against a backdrop of classic train and frosty snow, we meet this skeptical kid at the “critical age.” Is this the year he gives up on the whole idea of Santa?
Our young hero meets a hobo on the train, if you remember, and they have the following conversation on the speeding locomotive’s rooftop:
Hobo: What exactly is your persuasion on the big man, since you brought him up?
Boy: Well, I – I want to believe.
Hobo: But. But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path… Seeing is believing, am I right?
Is it a dream? Everything about the scene is dream-like — from the leering hobo to the midnight train itself. It can’t be real, right?
But it is real, at least in the context of a Christmas movie. And the journey continues over mountains and frozen seas, all the way to Santa himself. Seeing Santa is the main event, the reason for the kids’ frenzied excitement. And our little skeptic wants to see him. But while all the other children cheer, our boy can’t see. Try as he may, he can’t catch a glimpse. And when an elf shakes the sleigh bells, he can’t hear it, either.
Finally, he takes a deep breath. It flickers across his face — he is making a choice that flies in the face of logic. Tentatively, he picks up a bell, whispers, “I believe.”
WE ALL WANT TO BELIEVE.
The Kindly Conductor sums it up: Sometimes seeing is believing, and sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.
So what’s the most real? Not, certainly, Santa Claus. But the most real story, the most important one, is sometimes the hardest to believe.
Of all the stories, this one’s the best. It’s achingly beautiful. Like all the others, it has a pinch of tragedy, a sprinkle of hilarity, a huge dose of wonder. It has a crazy cast of characters:
A pregnant teenager with a wild story
Her skeptical fiancé
Some scruffy shepherds
A trio of foreign astrologers
And even a heavenly choir
It’s chock full of impossibilities, every bit as farfetched as a magical toy workshop at the North Pole. For Pete’s sake, it has a virgin birth, a huge new star, supernatural messengers and ancient prophecies.
How could a story this crazy possibly be true?
A few years back Sara Groves put out a great Christmas album with a mix of old carols and some new tunes. In one of the new ones, she sings,
In your heart you
Hope it’s true
Though you hold no expectation
In the deepest part of you
There’s an open hesitation
We all want to believe. It’s hardwired in us, the desire to connect with something bigger. Humans have this ridiculous capacity for wonder (it gets us into all kinds of wide-eyed trouble, but it’s also what makes us great storytellers.) Across the ages, across all cultures, we love a good tale. It’s like we’re meant to thirst for what is beautiful and true.
Do you ever stop to wonder why we want that kind of faith? I believe it is because God wants us to want Him.
It was the mathematician Blaise Pascal who famously said we all hold a God-shaped void in our hearts, and C.S. Lewis who said that our desires point to what can logically fulfill them. So we hunger because we need food. We lust because we need love. And ultimately all of our unrequited desires point to God.
There is a phenomenon among pregnant women called pica. It’s a curious craving to eat things which aren’t edible. Pregnant ladies have been known to crave mud, clay, laundry starch, burnt matches, stones, charcoal, moth balls, coffee grounds, soap, baking soda… Weird, right? They crave these illogical things because they actually have an iron deficiency. What they really need is spinach, beef, raisins, but somehow they’ve got their wires crossed, and they’re hiding in the closet eating paper.
Maybe we all have pica. Maybe the longing that shows up again and again in Christmas stories — for Santa, elves, romance — is really a signal that we were made for something more, something that (unlike a gingerbread house) can really meet a need.
We want to believe. But there are some major obstacles.
Sara Groves again:
Heard it told you
Think it’s odd
The whole thing fraught with complication
The play begins with
And all His blessed implications
But it’s true
Kingdoms and crowns
The God who came down to find you
Angels on high
Sing through the night Alleluia
How could this possibly be true? Maybe it’s the very impossibility of the story that makes it so believable. If you were going to write a story about God coming to earth, well, you’d make it spectacular, right? The fairy tale version would surely have palaces, princesses, a royal ball. Sleeping Beauty, you know? Instead we’ve got a stable full of stinky animals, a feeding trough for a cradle, an unwed teenaged mom. Who came up with this story?
You know, the Wise Men seem to make sense. At least they smack of royalty, and they come bearing gifts. Gold seems fit for a king. Frankincense, for a religious scene. But myrrh? Myrrh was used for burials. Who brings myrrh to a baby shower? Well, it’s a great gift to honor sacrifice. A great gift for a Savior – not so much for a baby.
What kind of crazy story is this, that it evokes so much wonder and delight and longing in our hearts? What child is this?
Could it be Christ the King?
As the Christmas carol goes on to say:
So bring him incense, gold and myrrh, come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.
The best thing about the Christmas story — the real story, the best story — it’s not just for kings. It’s for peasants. That is to say, it’s for all of us: pregnant teens and old ladies and migrant workers. Not just to listen and wish, but to own!
This king, who left palaces and crowns behind to be born in a stable and laid in a manger — for ME.
In The Polar Express, the little boy’s friend sings, “I’m wishing on a star, and trying to believe that even though it’s far, he’ll find me Christmas Eve.”
My prayer for all of us is that even though it seems impossible, He’ll find you this Christmas, with room in your heart for the wonder, and the hope, and the faith it takes to believe.
Move over, ducks. The Gumball Dynasty is a-comin’.
It all started with the World Vision Christmas catalog. At the table one night, we poured over it: “Look! A goat for only $75! A water buffalo will set you back $1100.” You might be surprised to hear that we are contemplating buying livestock, but on the other hand, maybe that is the kind of kooky thing you’ve come to expect from the Morgans. Who wouldn’t want to share space with a llama, after all?
Of course, it wouldn’t actually be for us. World Vision, as you probably already know, helps needy people around the world, and this is their annual gift-a-thon. For $548, for instance, you can send a live nativity scene to a modern-day Bethlehem somewhere around the world: a donkey, a sheep, a goat, and a pair of chickens. Manger not included.
I love, love, love the World Vision Christmas catalog. I am right there along with my 8-year-old, who wants to give not a single sheep, but the whole darn farm: 28 farm animals for under $2500. What?! So the kids and I were brainstorming. Could a kid raise that kind of money? How?
So we got online to research kids and fundraising, and we started planning the bread we could sell, the crafts we could make, the bubblegum… huh? Did you know that kids can have their very own bubblegum machine? You know, the kind you put a quarter in and get a handful of M&Ms or a giant ball of cement with a bright candy coating? My kids, doing some math, were all astonishment. Gumball machine: $100. One bag of gumballs yields: $200.
Little Man might just be the next Philip Anschutz, because since making this discovery, he has changed all of his previous Christmas wish list plans. Now the only thing he wants for Christmas is a paid-in-full gumball machine , half of the proceeds of which he intends to use to buy a farm for World Vision. (He wants to reinvest the other half into more gumballs until he has his own little vending route and enough money to fund college and a lifetime supply of Nerf guns.)
Can I just say, I wish I were so creative, caution-to-the-wind, and passionately generous as my 8-year-old? Here’s to the gumball dynasty. Here’s to 28 farm animals and a village lifted from hunger to abundance, and the knowledge that they are deeply loved.
If I have calculated correctly, Christmas is 8 days away. (I was an English major; you do the math!) So maybe, like me, you are watching old movies and pulling out favorite Christmas stories for an annual read-through. Last year, we discovered a story new to our family, a beautiful little old-fashioned tale called “The Family Under The Bridge” by Natalie Savage Carlson. It is the story of a recently homeless family in Paris and the ragged old hobo who pledges to find for them a new home. It’s great.
Armand is the old beggar who reluctantly finds himself helping the three shell-shocked children, the little “starlings,” he calls them. And despite their mother’s disdain and revulsion for the old man, the family is soon inextricably linked with him (isn’t it always the case when we let the walls down — gah! Inconvenient love!) Armand promises Suzy a real, honest-to-goodness house for Christmas, a promise he can’t possibly keep, of course. Christmas Eve rolls around…
“Then the crowd of hoboes and their ladies and friends sang Christmas carols to the accordion music. Most of their voices were cracked and off key, but they sounded beautiful to themselves.
“Armand was ready to go by midnight. He clung to the big carton that had been given him at the tent as a gift. He knew it was full of jam, fruit and cigarettes. It would be his Christmas present to the gypsies.
“But Madame Calcet wouldn’t think of going straight back. ‘We must go to the midnight mass on the quay,’ she said. ‘The girl told me about it.’
“An altar had been set up on the Tournelle quay right out in the open. The priest in his bright vestments, followed by his altar boys, had just approached the altar by the time Armand and the Calcets arrived. Many of the hoboes stayed for the mass.
“Evelyne fell asleep in her mother’s arms. Jojo was quiet and respectful although it was the first time he had ever been to church.
“Armand swayed from one foot to the other uneasily. It had been so long since he had gone to mass. Lucky this one was out here on the quay. They never would have pulled him into one of those great fancy churches.
“The hobo had other things to make him uneasy. The plight of this family. Just how had he got himself so tied up with them? How had he blundered into such a trap? It was the way those starlings had begged hi to stay with them. That is how they had stolen his heart. No one had ever made him feel needed before. And now he’d lied to them. There wasn’t any house growing out of the ground — not for them.
“In his misery he raised his eyes high over the altar — up to the stars in the Paris sky. ‘Please, God,’ he said, moving his lips soundlessly, ‘I’ve forgotten how to pray. All I know now is how to beg. So I’m begging you to find a roof for this homeless family.’
“Then he was ashamed to notice that he was holding his beret up in his usual begging way. He quickly pulled it over his head.”
What do you pray for, so earnestly that you would beg, hat in hand under the starry December sky? Aren’t we all beggars, no better off than poor old Armand? It’s only when we forget what ragamuffins we are that our prayers get stale and ugly. May we all remember the state of our beggar souls, cry out in earnest to the only one who can do the impossible. Then watch and see if the miracles don’t begin to unfold.
In the meantime, sip that eggnog latte and remember, there are those in our midst who will spend Christmas on the concrete. A little compassion goes a long way.
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
So tomorrow is the Christmas Tea, our church’s annual ladies’ event. Guess who’s speaking?
Tonight we set things up, the miles of garland, enough lights to reach from Colorado to California, plates enough to stack to the moon, all things glittering, all things white, all things shiny. We worked, and worked, and all the while staring down at us was the podium where tomorrow I will have an asthma attack and try to say the right words.
Every place is set for some woman unknown to me to sit, and lightly laugh, eat scones, sip coffee. Every chair is waiting for a story I don’t know. And I am tangled in ribbon and plasticware and ornaments, details — I am so bad at details — swamping me, a thousand things to forget.
I want to forget, really, want to let go of the to-do list and focus on what matters — those women with their stories, pausing for a moment to look up at me — what will I tell them? And I want my words to soar like O Holy Night, so that by the end, we all fall on our knees in wonder.
What do you say about Christmas that hasn’t been said? None of it is new. And all of it is new. Because the ancient and the sacred and the well-remembered will still collide with new people in a new place on a new day. And the woman who just slammed the phone down, mad, will hear the old story in a way she’s never heard it before. Long lay the world in sin and error pining… And she’s pining at that moment like never before. The woman who just found out she’s expecting — that baby in a drafty barn will sound different to her new-mother ears than ever before. O Holy Night.
So maybe I can breathe deep and say the familiar words and not worry about being shiny or new. Maybe Christmas is shiny enough all on its own.
So our daughter has been saving her pennies for Christmas gifts — a $2 rubber band ball for her brother (spot-on for the little inventor), a ballcap, perhaps, for dear old dad. She is too cute, so excited to give her hard-earned allowance for the thrill of making someone smile.
Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda starred in the 1994 movie, “It Could Happen to You,” the story of a down-on-her-luck waitress awarded a stingy tip: one-half of a lottery ticket. How amazed she was when the ticket won, and the cop who made a promise came back to give her half of the winnings. But the best part of the film is what the pair of them go on to do. Exuberantly, overflowing with amazement akin to the Prodigal Son’s, they hit the streets and begin giving their money away. The initial gift from policeman to waitress inspires dozens more gifts, from stranger to stranger, all given with infectious laughter and sweetness, none deserved.
It is more blessed to give than to receive. Even this, the ability to give, is a gift from God, the very first we see in Genesis. God, as we are introduced to him for the first time, is uncontainable, lavish, joyful, creative, spontaneous, intimate, bursting with life, wit, whim. From his fingertips spill star, Saturn, swordfish, platypus, hummingbird, cow, sunflower, live oak, seaweed, Adam. How much was required for a sustainable planet, and how much was just gravy?
God gives, gives freely, gives abundantly, teaches us abundance not by stockpiling the gifts but holding our hand to scatter them all loose in the world, regifting. To give is to spin wild in a circle, child in the father’s hands, fearless. Who fears to give when all is manna raining down, inexhaustible?
We always struggle to reign in the holiday spending, but maybe just as important is to savor the giving, really pause and feel it, remembering God who freely gives, who freely gave — this is how I am loved! Extravagantly.