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Seven things to know about the Christmas story

A nativity scene (2012) Credit: Peter Miller/Flickr

This time of year we are awash in Christmas stories. There’s “A Christmas Carol” at ACT Theatre, “A Christmas Story: The Musical” at the Fifth Avenue and “The Nutcracker” at the ballet for starters. On TV there are tons more, including such modern classics as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

And then there’s the stack of Christmas story books for all ages. At our home the stack features “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “Mouskin’s Christmas,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and, of course, “The Night Before Christmas” with illustrations by Grandma Moses.

All these stories and productions are part of the richness and ritual of the season. But it has occurred to me that readers might also wish to read and ponder the original Christmas story, and even welcome a short guide. Here then are we might call the Seven Things to Know About the Christmas Story.

1. In the Bible there isn’t just one story about the birth of Jesus. There are two, and they are remarkably different.

The first is found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, Verse 18 through Chapter 2, Verse 12. (Or if you want the longer version, all of Chapters 1 and 2). The second story comes from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 1 through 20. (Again, the longer version would be all of Chapters 1 and 2). In a world that often wants to whittle things down to one way or one “right” answer, it is refreshing to find that there’s more than one way to see important things, more than one truth to tell.

2. The main character in Matthew’s Christmas story (aside from Jesus) is Joseph, who was engaged to Mary. Joseph was a guy with a big problem or, we might say, a “challenging ethical dilemma.” His fiancée was pregnant and he wasn’t the father. What’s a guy to do? Tradition taught that, in such a scandalous situation, Joseph should give Mary the boot which is what he initially planned to do. But when Joseph received a message in a dream that he should stick with Mary and treat the child as his own, he did.

The issue here is the conflict a person can experience when the expectations of society and other people — and what you believe to be required of you — don't synch up.

3. The Wise Men who came to see the baby Jesus appear only in Matthew’s Christmas story. (And here’s a fascinating tidbit: Matthew never mentions how many there were or names them. The number (three) and the exotic names — Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar — were all added by storytellers over the centuries. What is clear is that these “wise men from the east” were not Jewish. They were foreigners, outsiders. And yet, there they were, in the inner circle, in on the big truth. Which raises questions about social and religious groups that see God (or the good) as on their side alone, versus the idea that God is not committed to any one group, tribe, race or nation.

4. King Herod also appears only in Matthew’s Christmas Story, and boy is he nasty. When he hears a new king has been born (Herod thought being king was his job) he is so threatened that he orders soldiers to kill all children under age two. It’s easy to write Herod off as one of history’s long parade of vicious, power-drunk rulers. But we might also consider the Herod in us, and the times we felt so threatened by someone that we retaliated by doing something nasty.

5. In Luke, the star of the show is not Joseph, but Mary. The spotlight is on the young, unwed mother, who said “yes” to a totally crazy idea. Particularly in the first chapter, Mary emerges as a very full character — not the one-dimensional figure of Christmas cards and piety. As that more fully realized person, Mary is remarkable, a young woman who, at considerable risk to herself, embraces a wild, impossible possibility.

6. The famous line about “no room at the inn,” a circumstance which led to the Son of God being born outside and in a manger — where animals were fed and sheltered — only takes place in Luke’s version. We tend to romanticize the manger scene, but the point is that from the get-go, at his very birth, Jesus has cast his lot with those who know what it is to be shunned. This is as contemporary, and urgent, as “Black Lives Matter.”

7. The shepherds only show up in Luke. Shepherds in that time period were looked down upon as low class. They worked nights and missed most of the important social and religious occasions. The court of this king consists of nobodies, not somebodies.

Given numbers 6 and 7, one conclusion you could draw from reading Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus is that God do what's expected. He didn't set his son's birth in a nice home, in the right neighborhood. This God shows up in surprising places, among unlikely people.

One problem with the original Christmas story is its familiarity, a familiarity that erodes its rough edges and interesting challenges. That said, part of its appeal is that very familiarity. What draws people to Joseph and Mary and the manger and to this story is its familiar magic and sweet mystery.

On one hand, it is most ordinary of events: the birth of a child. On the other, it is extraordinary because every birth is a miracle. But it is extraordinary in a deeper sense as well — as a sign of promise and hope in the deepest part of the night at the darkest time of the year. This Christmas story assures us that against all the odds, grace happens. New life happens.

One of the other four Gospels of the New Testament, the Gospel of John, doesn’t include the story of the birth at all, and yet John may have said it best. In the majestic opening chapter, we read, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The many stories of Christmas — from Charles Dickens to Charlie Brown — are part of the joy and fun of the season. But don’t miss the chance to go back to the original Christmas story and let it stir your mind and your heart.

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