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Tell it with meaning

29 November 2013

Christmas services need to present the Gospel stories in a more grown-up way and amid a suffering world, argues Adrian Alker

GREG enjoyed dressing up as a king for the Christmas Eve children's service. Last year, he had been a lowly shepherd in the nativity play, so this was a definite promotion. As he left the church, he turned to his grandfather and asked, as only a child of seven can do: "Grandpa, is the Christmas story true?"

As this grandfather recounted to me the conversation they had had, I began to think again about what might be in the minds and hearts of those who throng churches at this one time of the year. I began to wonder whether we were doing little more through carol and nativity services than offering a fairytale-like and cosy prelude to our family Christmases.

There are tremendous opportunities to touch so many with the truths of the Christmas story, but we need to look more carefully at what these truths are.

Greg wanted to know "what really happened": whether angels sang to the shepherds; whether Wise Men really arrived from the east to present gifts; and so on. We ought to consider more deeply how we in the churches present these stories - as literal, historical facts, or as serious theological writings, designed as overtures to the whole of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

I BELIEVE that we should encourage Greg and ourselves to ask another question: what do the Christmas stories mean? What did it mean to say that Wise Men knelt before the infant Christ? What did it mean to the Gospel-writers to say that Jesus is Son of God, Lord, and Saviour, in a world in which the Roman Emperor held such titles? It meant a great deal to Matthew and Luke, as they strove to promote an articulate faith in this Jesus, who, for his followers, is the Christ of God.

We need to grow up theologically, to convey the depth of meaning intended by Matthew and Luke, and not to collude in a sentimental presentation of the birth narratives, which might be acceptable in the infant school, but needs more rigorous retelling for the rest of us.

Here are Jewish sacred stories, using Midrash, poetry, song, and myth, in an attempt to furnish profound truths about the nature of God and God's involvement in our world. I think we should be unafraid to assert that the Christmas stories are primarily vehicles to convey deep truths about divine presence, divine love, and power in the world. Young people like Greg are more likely to recognise the power of story than many of us adults.

Matthew and Luke are making powerful claims about the love of God, seen in Jesus. Wise people discern the truth that love overcomes evil; that Christ, and not Herod, calls for our allegiance and our gifts in his service. If Jesus is King, and not Caesar nor Herod, then our whole world-view changes.

The "truth" of the incarnation is in part about what the world would be like if God were to rule, and we were to be godlike in our citizenship of this world. Such challenging truth-claims by the Gospel-writers invite us to be imaginative and missional in our Christmas worship.

MANY churches and clerics do, of course, offer new ways of retelling the Christmas stories, and connecting them to the present day. One approach is to be specific about a theme, using the gospel narrative, but widening it in ways that might connect to popular carols and to the modern world.

For example, the story of the magi could pick up the theme of wisdom or of kingship. Matthew's Gospel portrays Jesus as the new King David, whom Herod, another "King of the Jews", seeks to destroy. And towards the end of that Gospel, Pilate questions Jesus: "Are you the King of the Jews?"

So here is a platform to reflect on the quality of kingship, of wise and compassionate leadership. We could incorporate the carol "Good King Wenceslas" and its evident theme of kindness ("Ye who now would bless the poor . . .") and refer to examples of contemporary rulers, praying for those who suffer now at the hands of dictators.

A Christmas celebration or a nativity play can incorporate a folk tale, since the pantomime season, with its moral tales, is fast approaching. Take, for example, the Russian story of Baboushka, who ends up by finding the Christ-child in every person she meets, and giving presents to children on her way.

It is not difficult to incorporate this into the traditional nativity story. Some people might even be able to dress up the church as a Russian village, have some Russian-style food before the celebration begins, and perhaps focus prayers on the people of that country. There is a carol-type song, "Come in, my royal masters", which children might learn.

 ther possibilities would be the legend of St Francis's building the first crib at Assisi, taking an Italian theme and reflecting on the life of Francis; or the tales of the fourth Wise Man, or Papa Panov.

There are ways - for I have done it - in which the fusion of such stories with the biblical birth narratives can have a deeply enriching effect. Information about such folk tales is easily available on the internet.

IN SUCH an approach, let us not be afraid to have a sense of theatre, to encourage adults as well as children to dress up according to the theme. All those occasional visitors might appreciate that these Christians are not always so solemn.

It is worth trying to create a sense of mystery and surprise, perhaps using imaginative lighting, offering the community an opportunity to experience hospitality with food and drink as people arrive. (We served Russian cabbage pie when we told the tale of Baboushka.)

If the service is prefaced by a half-hour of community time - with refreshments, perhaps craft activities, or a carolling group to entertain - it could become a wonderful opportunity for out- reach.

Fresh thinking could apply to the more formal service of nine lessons and carols, whose biblical extracts have been used to promote a particular view of sin and redemption. Why not vary the content over the years, and have themes such as "Light in the darkness", "Peace with justice", "Love and compassion"? People could light a candle and offer a prayer after each of the readings, which would help to connect with local and global concerns.

AS WE prepare for Christmas, we do so at a time of continuing austerity for many in our communities who are dependent on food banks and payday lending. Conflict continues unabated across the Middle East, and millions are displaced and living as refugees. Thousands of lives have been lost and homes destroyed in the Philippines.

Liturgical resources from organisations such as Christian Aid, CAFOD, and Wild Goose all help to ground our celebrations of the love of God seen in Jesus in the reality of the world's needs.

Singing "O Little town of Bethlehem" with images projected of life today in Palestine can be a powerful experience. Reading Matthew's account of the Flight into Egypt, using art postcards that depict that scene alongside current photos of those living in refugee camps on the Syrian border, and singing John Bell and Graham Maules's evocative hymn, "When God Almighty came to earth", can form the basis of a liturgy that seeks to place the birth story in today's world. The Gospel-writers were creating these narratives in their own context of a people yearning for freedom from oppression.

The Christmas story challenges us in powerful ways to follow the one who showed us how to love, to be makers of peace, to confront evil. It is a story that our weary world needs to take to heart.

I fear that many critics of religion think that Christianity is at the level of the school nativity play. Perhaps people want to hold on to this kind of faith - a sentimental tale of kings, and a baby, brought out every year for our delight. But what if we offered instead the challenge of a God seen in Jesus, who confronts the despot, brings low the mighty, and points the way to the true path of peace? This is a faith worth having. Tell the Christmas story, yes, but then tell its meaning.

Canon Alker is Director of Mission Resourcing for the diocese of Ripon & Leeds, and the author of Christmas: Ancient meanings, modern faith (St Mark's CRC Press, 2011).

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