Like many of us I have been reading and hearing and seeing and telling the Christmas story all my life. When I was a small child I had just one line to say in the school nativity play, and I said it so quietly in rehearsal that the teachers made somebody else say it with me in the performance. When I was a little older I was the head shepherd in the church nativity, and had a special wooden shepherd’s crook which in the end I forgot to bring. As a teenager I wrote a series of short stories retelling Jesus’ birth from the perspective of a shepherd, a wise man, and an angel. The tale of Christmas is buried deep in my imagination, far deeper even than those other tales we all know so well, of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the rest.
But when each year it comes to December and I turn back to the gospels, and read again the tale of the frightened virgin, the astonished shepherds, the wise easterners, the throngs and throngs of angels, I find that the story comes to me again as a new story. I am called to receive it as one who has not heard it before, and to respond to it: not as a sleepy child who enjoys the comfort of an ancient tale before closing her eyes at night, nor even as a scholar who seeks the thrill of finding new things in a play she has read a hundred times. I must hear it as a story that is completely real, and completely relevant.
In other words I must put myself behind the eyes of Theophilus, that shadowy person to whom Luke addresses his two books which tell firstly of Jesus’ life and then of the first decades after he died.
To these men, the story was not old. They had not acted in nativity plays every year throughout their childhoods. They had not heard the Christmas story time and time again. They had never even heard the word ‘Christmas’. When Luke wrote this story down it had happened relatively recently. There was nothing faded or childish about it. It was not a bedtime story but a historical account. It was real. “I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.”
Luke and Theophilus were like us: they had not seen Jesus. They weren’t there when he healed the hopelessly sick or preached standing in a boat or shone with eternal light on the mountain or hung bloodstained on the cross. They did not see the manger in which the baby was laid, or the hillside with the sheep the shepherds had abandoned in their rush to heed the angels’ proclamation. But they had heard about these things, and they believed that they were true.
Luke says he has studied all these things carefully, worked hard at his research. He stresses the number of sources he has used, and their quality: many people had already written down the things which Jesus said or did, and these were eyewitness accounts. Luke never saw Jesus, but he had been Paul’s friend and fellow worker during the earliest decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was from Jesus’ own friends that Luke first heard the story.
What of the part about Jesus’ birth? This was longer ago than the cross, and none of the apostles whom Luke knew were there in Bethlehem when Christ was born. But he still had an eyewitness. Twice he tells us that Mary ‘treasured up all these things in her heart’ (2:19, 51). What he means is that Mary remembered what happened, she stored up the memories like precious jewels, and afterwards she told other people about it. Luke knows that his history is true because his source is Mary herself.
This is how the story comes to us at the beginning: as a piece of research, a historical account, a brilliant piecing-together of different sources to uncover the truth about the past. It was a story that needed to be proved, and could be. To Theophilus this was like hearing a grandparent’s story about something that happened fifty years ago; or reading a memoir spilling the beans on what was really going on in Westminster under Blair. It was real.
Yet in another sense the story was not new to Luke or Theophilus. At least, it was not entirely unexpected. Luke takes a long time to wind up to the birth of Jesus, and during those eighty verses he shows us that this story is part of the vast story which Jewish children were told, and are still being told, all their lives. He has Mary put it in a song (1:46-55): “He has helped his servant Israel, just as he promised our ancestors.” And in case we didn’t hear it the first time, Zechariah sings about it too (1:68-79): “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us, as he said through his holy prophets of long ago.” This is the story the Jews had grown up with, the one they’d heard again and again every year, at home and at school and in places of worship. A story of promises from the Old Testament, which said, “God is a rescuing God and one day he will send the best rescuer of all.”
So the story of Christmas which Luke tells in the first two chapters of his first book is not only a new story, it is also an extremely meaningful story, presented not as a funny anecdote of childhood nor as a revelatory political memoir but as the fulfilment and flowering of a story which began with Abraham or even before him. It is the realization of countless hopes. It is a life-changing story, because it is the story of the end of the world as we knew it, and the start of a new one. It is the most relevant story of all. The reality and truth which Luke is so anxious that we should take on board is not trivial or just interesting: it is momentous. It makes a difference. This, as the old priest Zechariah sings, is the tale of the sunrise, of the moment when darkness became light. To those who listen, it will bring peace.
This is the story, told in precise historical prose and joyful, glorious poetry by turns: a story that is real, and alive.
When I have noticed these things, the truth and the momentousness of Christmas, then I find I can embrace once again its familiarity. This story is about the whole world. It is like a fairytale after all, because it lifts the spell and shows things as they really are. There is a handsome prince beneath the beast; the scary witch is a mere shrivelled old woman. Christ has come. The sun has risen. I will tell this tale to children just as it was told to me, year upon year, knowing that it is real and that it has the power to change their lives; hoping, in the end, that they will be able to wrap themselves in it as in a blanket, and sleep peacefully.