I never did hear my Gramps play, he died before I was born. However, years later, I heard Chopin played in a recital I attended while in college. Though I had heard recordings in the past, they didn’t compare with sitting in the recital hall and hearing my friend play the music. Without my friend, all that music was a bunch of dots and squiggles and lines on a page. Add a musician to those sheets of music and all of those mysterious markings were brought to life. Suddenly, a musician--a person--gave it all form.
Year after year, we flip through our bible to the second chapter of Luke and we read this old, old story of shepherds and starry skies, of donkeys and mangers, of a little holy family looking for shelter. It is a story of letters and words and verse and chapter numbers all strung together on the page. But it is also something more than that.
Certainly, it is a story worth treasuring for so many reasons--most of all because it is the story of God’s love for us made human in the person of Jesus.
The greatest stories connect powerfully with a place in our heart. The Christmas story has a lot of angles that touch our hearts.
Sometimes, the thing in the story that we tap into most keenly is nostalgia. It’s a story that brings up memories of childhood magic or closeness with the ones we love. But, the story also connects us with a place in our heart much bigger than the nostalgia.
There is a beautiful little line from the Christmas story that reads “the time came” for Mary to deliver her child. “The time came” is a translation of the phrase that could also be read as “the days were fulfilled.” As in: the days were fulfilled as Mary gave birth.
To fulfill something means to bring something to life. If we fulfill a certainly responsibility, we follow through. We make it happen, we bring it to life. We live up to it and give it form, almost like fitting into a perfectly tailored pair of pants that are lifeless on the hanger but “filled out” when a person wears them. Almost like bringing to life a gorgeous piece of music which as a score is a lifeless sheet of dots and lines but in the hands of a musician, is a whole new creation.
The Christmas story brings to life our hopes of a different world. A world where vulnerable families like the Holy family are taken care of and where forgotten people are noticed. A world where the tyrant kings are cast down from their thrones while heaven comes down to peasants. A worlds where loved ones persist and strong and gentle people win. A worlds where strangers show extravagant hospitality. A world where all will be well.
This connection between the story and our hearts is so strong that it cannot help but burst into life.
We hear a lot about fulfillment in the gospels and how scripture is fulfilled through things that were happening in the ancient world at that time. It was as if the ancient world were crackling with God’s life and spirit around them. The stories from Isaiah, Leviticus and Jeremiah shimmered with their timeliness as Jesus drew them into real time.
The practice of bringing the story to life continues today.
Centuries ago, St. Francis of Assisi was on his way home from a visit to the Holy Land and he passed through a little Italian town in Greccio around Christmas time.
The rocky landscape reminded him of the Holy Land and an idea struck him. What if the townspeople played the parts of the shepherd and the angels and the Holy family? And then, what if they found some animals--like an ox or some sheep--to bring to the little barn? And then, what if they invited some people to come and experience the wonder and delight of this re-creation of the Christmas story?
St. Francis did just this. And, in the year 1223, the first living nativity was acted out, exactly 800 years ago this Christmas.
Without the actors giving life to the letters and words and verses and chapter numbers of the nativity story all strung together on the page, the story is flat and neatly tucked away on the shelf.
The hope was, and is, that if people saw and heard this story acted out, they might be able to see and experience this in their own lives too.
The Christmas story needs a third party. There is an ancient story, and a holy spirit, and there is you.
Sometimes, you are Joseph, doggedly persistent and knocking on door after door, barely hopeful, but determined to fight for the ones you love.
Sometimes, you are the innkeeper when suddenly someone knocks on your door and needs help and you extend it.
Sometimes you feel forgotten, unimportant, lonely, like shepherds when unexpectedly a choir of angels appears to you in the starry sky (or maybe it’s just an angelic friend who met you for coffee, but however it turns out) they remind you that you are beloved to God.
Christmas is a story that we bring to life--God brings to life!--through the way that we carry ourselves, through how we show up in the world, through the projects we get involved in, the places we pour our heart into, through the wild energy of the Holy Spirit that nudges us towards holy spaces.
It’s a song that begins in the shadows, it’s a cry of the caged bird singing of Good News. It’s a song of freedom that sings out persistently, even in the hardest of times.
This ancient song is meant for us. It’s meant for our neighbors. The call is to listen carefully, as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds did, to pay attention to God’s music, to fulfill our call, to pick up our instruments and play our part in the symphony.