The story of Christmas tends to be lacquered over with a heavy coat of nostalgia. I like nostalgia. Last week I was the one begging our children to watch the original Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Our two older ones flatly refused and instead watched episodes of The Walking Dead. Our younger one consented, but fell asleep at the crucial scene with the Abominable Snowman. Oh, well.
The problem with nostalgia is that it can obscure the truth of what we celebrate year after year: God becoming a real man, in a real place, in a real time. I’m aware, of course, as Tom Wolfe says in his new novel, that “nobody on the East or West Coast of the United States who aspires to even entry level sophistication is any longer religious.” Yet if the historical underpinnings are removed from the Christmas Story, then all we are left with is nostalgia. And nostalgia doesn’t really help you at 3 in the morning, or in the middle of a divorce, or on a deathbed.
There is a wonderful introduction to the Jesus Storybook Bible, the children’s bible that is also a great grown up bible, especially for we Episcopalians, who are not generally known for our biblical literacy. The author says, “You see, the best thing about this Story is – it’s true.”
Our gospel reading on this second Sunday of Advent begins the part of the story about John the Baptist. Along with John, there is a list of names in the story: Isaiah, Zechariah, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Tiberius Caesar, Lysanias, and Philip the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis.
Luke includes all these names in order to set the story in an historical setting: an actual place, an actual time, with actual people. The story of John the Baptist, and thus the story of Jesus Christ, is not set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Tiberius Caesar and Philip the Tetrarch, Annas and Caiaphas – those are the names of history, a history which records a story that is true.
Luke is also setting a particular scene, a distinct mood by this list of names. He is telling us the kind of socio-political world John and his cousin Jesus operated in. The original hearers of Luke’s story would have known immediately the tone of the setting – tension and fear. It could have been prefaced by “it was a dark and stormy night.”
What the listeners knew and we don’t readily recognize by those names is that Israel was an occupied country full on strife and unrest. It would be like us hearing the names, Bin Laden, Mubarak, and Gadhafi. But, Middle East strife is nothing new. The Romans ruled the Jews – the Jews had no real political autonomy. The names reveal the particulars.
The reign of Tiberius Caesar was characterized by terror. Not just the “fifteenth year” as our narrative begins, but all of it, especially the latter years. As his mental health deteriorated, Tiberius tortured and killed his subjects without cause.
Pontius Pilate, as you may know, was the prefect of the Roman province of Judea from 26 to36 AD. Existing documents describe Pilate as “inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”. Pilate’s administration was marked by “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, and endless savage ferocity.” Jesus, of course, “suffered under Pilate” as we say in our creed.
The Herod mentioned in this list is Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee during Jesus’ ministry. Herod’s father – Herod the Great – is the ruler that ordered the massacre of all male babies at the time of Jesus’ birth because he was afraid of losing his throne to this supposed “new king” prophesied by the wise men. Herod Antipas was a chip off the old block. He imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist, famously serving his head on a platter at a dinner party. He had a role in the execution of Jesus.
Acts chapter 12 tells us about Herod’s death. After putting on his royal robes and delivering an angry oration to the people of Tyre and Sidon, the people acclaimed him as a god. Then, the Bible says, “immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” Instant karma got him. I reckon that makes you think twice about not giving God credit where credit is due! I’m not sure Rudolph would be of much help here.
So, Luke’s tension filled historical introduction makes clear that as one scholar says, “Jesus was born into a society seething with an active hunger for hope.” I would ask, what society isn’t hungering for hope? What person doesn’t hunger for hope? You have your own story. Your own personal story has characters like Herod and Pilate and Tiberius Caesar.
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes, “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us … Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil.”
If your story is like mine, it is includes the net of good and evil, peace and anxiety, fulfillment and longing. Your story has some places of healing, and some wounds that won’t seem to go away. Your story is filled with mystery, with things you just don’t understand. Above all, or perhaps, below all, your story hungers for another Story, a true Story that gives you meaning and hope.
John the Baptist speaks hope and truth into the world’s story, into ours story when he quotes Isaiah, saying, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
There is usually a moment during every Christmas season that I’m overwhelmed with an experience that goes beyond nostalgia. Do you have these moments? A line from a carol, a scene from a movie, a fragment of a prayer touches a place way deep down. Form gives way to substance. The $3000 a woman spent on her Christmas cards in a local stationary store, the anxieties of my own gift giving and getting, the incessant holiday muzak gives way to the truth beneath the folderol.
In these moments, I am moved beyond the nostalgia to the truth of the Christmas Story. The Story is true for me and my story. My valleys will be filled, my crooked and rough ways made straight. My flesh shall see the salvation of God. Like Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives. In my flesh I shall see God. And my eyes, shall behold Him, and not another. How my heart yearns within me.” This is why I love Christmas.
Thank God for this true story. Thank God that, as the Jesus Storybook Bible says,
“The Bible isn’t a book about rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!
Or as Milton wrote, “He forsook the courts of everlasting day, and chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.”
Last week in the Wall Street Journal, there was a story about one of our culture’s great and enduring storytellers – Alfred Hitchcock. The article was written by a Jesuit priest, who when he was young accompanied another priest to give Hitchcock Holy Communion as he neared death. Father Henninger recounts,
“After we chatted for a while, we all crossed from the living room through a breezeway to his study, and there, with his wife, Alma, we celebrated a quiet Mass. Across from me were the bound volumes of his movie scripts, “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “North by Northwest” and others—a great distraction. Hitchcock had been away from the church for some time, and he answered the responses in Latin the old way. But the most remarkable sight was that after receiving communion, he silently cried, tears rolling down his huge cheeks.
“St. Augustine wrote: “Magnum mysterium mihi”—I am a great mystery to myself. Why exactly Hitchcock asked (us) to visit him is not clear to us and perhaps was not completely clear to him. But something whispered in his heart, and the visits answered a profound human desire, a real human need. Who of us is without such needs and desires?”
Nobody is without such needs and desires, this active hunger for true hope. Everyone longs for the true God. Which is why at Christmas we tell the world – and ourselves – the story yet again: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Amen.