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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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
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,