I learned “the Christmas story” the same way you did. Unlearning “it” has been one of the great delights of my adult life. In unlearning “it,” I was free to learn “them,” and that has been very satisfying.
“Them” are the narratives of the birth of Jesus provided by our only two sources of information, the gospels written by Matthew and by Luke. In this post, I’m going to say how I learned about the two birth narratives. Then I’ll offer a sample of one place—of the two—I have wound up.
Raymond E. Brown was one of the best known and most respected biblical scholars of his era. He died at the age of 70 in 1998. The book that introduced me to this topic was his The Birth of the Messiah in 1977. For a book that has two sources, it is very sensibly divided between Matthew’s account—the first half of the book—and Luke’s account. For twenty years or so, I have been reading one of those halves each year at Advent and ignoring, as nearly as I was able, the other half.
Those twenty years or so have allowed me to get comfortable in each of the stories and to enjoy the integrity of each narrative. Integrity is not something you will find in “the Christmas story,” which is a head-spinning combination of the two stories. It has given me a gift that is not often found in people my age: I really like the birth narratives. They aren’t sentimental mush to me. They are two rich artistic reconstructions of the kind of birth Jesus must have had to be the Messiah as Matthew sees him or the Messiah as Luke sees him.
So you could do it the way I did it. It is twenty or thirty years, but…you know…it’s just for the season of Advent. You would still have the rest of the year. Or, alternatively, you could read the story that makes up most of the rest of this post.
Last year, when I was reading and thinking about the narrative Matthew tells, I wrote a version of it for the only grandchildren I have who are still young enough (none are yet old enough) to appreciate it. Try this sometime with a story that matters to you. Try to write it so that it could be understood by a beginning reader. One of the first things you learn is that there are a lot of questions about the story that you, yourself, have never asked. And, of course, you don’t know the answers.
This year, I’ve been reading and thinking about Luke’s account. Here’s what I wrote. Then, below, I’ll tell you about three problems that I wasn’t able to solve this year. My next chance at it will be in 2014. Maybe I’ll get it right then. If not, there’s always 2016.
Luke for Kids: 2012
This is the story of how God provided Jesus with two invaluable gifts: a mother and a teacher. The mother’s name was Mary. She was a young woman who lived in Nazareth. The teacher’s name was John. As you will see, Jesus was born according to the plan God had laid out. The planning was very careful and there was only one tiny mistake.
John would be Jesus’s cousin and nearly a year older than Jesus, so let’s start with his story. John’s father Zechariah was a priest and one day, as he was in the temple in Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, was going to have a baby. Elizabeth had wanted a baby all her life, but she had never been able to have one and was now an old woman. Or, as Zechariah said to Gabriel, she was “getting on in years.”
Zechariah knew how happy Elizabeth would be about this, but he had trouble understanding how it could happen for people as old as he and Elizabeth. Gabriel said that Zechariah should have been willing to trust God’s message to him and because he doubted, he would not be able to hear or to speak until the child was born. But the child would be born anyway, just as God had promised.
And he was. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both so happy and all the neighbors and family came to their house to celebrate the wonderful event. It wasn’t so hard to believe any more, now that it had happened. Everyone assumed that the little boy would be named Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that he was to be named John. “John?” they said. So they signed to Zechariah, who, you remember, could still not hear or speak, and he wrote down on a pad, “His name is John.” So years later, when Jesus met him, his name was John and he was famous and people called him John the Baptist because he baptized people in the river Jordan.
After the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in Jerusalem, he came to Mary at her parents’ home in Nazareth. He told Mary that she was going to have a little boy as a special gift from God. Mary was to name the boy Jesus and that Jesus would do God’s work in a wonderful way when he grew up. When Elizabeth learned from Zechariah that she was going to have a baby, she was very happy, you remember. But Elizabeth was an old woman who had always wanted a baby. Mary was a very young woman who was not married and who had not even begun to think about having a baby. She loved her fiancé, Joseph, but they had never lived together the way they would after they were married.
So she asked Gabriel the same question Zechariah had asked, “How could this happen?” Gabriel said it would be a special gift from God and that she should trust God about how and when it would happen. Mary thought about how complicated it would be to have a baby before she and Joseph were married, but she trusted God to have a plan.
But the next step in God’s careful plan was not to happen in Nazareth, where she lived. After Gabriel’s announcement, Augustus the ruler of the Roman Empire, which included Nazareth and Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, had an announcement of his own. He wanted to get a count of how many people there were in the empire and all the Jewish people were supposed to go to the town where their ancestors had lived. Joseph’s family came from Bethlehem, way down south near Jerusalem, so he and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered in the census.
While they were there, it was time for the baby to be born and this is where a really odd thing happened. Do you remember how the whole story of John and his parents and Jesus and his parents showed such careful planning and everything went just according to plan? Well, when Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, it turned out that nobody had made a reservation for them at the inn and they had to spend the night in the stable with the animals and that is where Jesus was born. Of course, they didn’t have a bed either, out there in the stable, but they put him in the animals’ feed trough and he looked very comfortable there.
Not long afterward, some shepherds from the nearby hills showed up and asked to see the baby. Joseph and Mary were surprised to see the shepherds. They didn’t understand how anyone else would know about the baby Jesus. But it turned out that the shepherds had an amazing story to tell. They were out in the fields, they said, protecting their sheep from harm when suddenly an angel was standing there with them and a bright light shone all around them. They were scared of course, but the angel said there was nothing to be afraid of.
He had wonderful news for them, he said. A baby had been born down in Bethlehem and this baby would be the Messiah and would grow up to be the one to save Israel. They could tell which baby it was, the angel said, because he would be in a stable, sound asleep in a feed trough.
And then the whole sky filled up with angels, singing “Glory to God in heaven and peace on earth to everyone who bears God’s blessing.” That’s when the shepherds decided they just had to go to Bethlehem and see. And they found the baby and saw for themselves what the angel had said. Then they left to go back to the sheep and on their way back, they told everyone who would listen about the little baby who would grow up and save Israel.
Before they went back up to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary took the baby to the temple in Jerusalem. There, they made an old man very happy. The old man’s name was Simeon and God had promised him that before he died, he would get to see with his own eyes the Messiah that God had promised. Simeon had waited many years for God to fulfill the promise, but when he saw Jesus, he knew that his long wait was over. He took the baby in his arms and prayed, “Thank you, God, for showing me the baby who will rescue Israel. Now at last I can die happy and at peace.”
After this, Joseph and Mary went back to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. As a young man, Jesus wanted very much to know what special work God had for him to do. He even went to the temple once and stayed there for a while, talking with the priests and listening to them. Then one day, he heard that his cousin John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, telling them to give up their sins and open their minds to what God wanted them to be. People wondered if John might be the Messiah, but John knew he was not. He thought about his cousin, Jesus, and he said to the crowds, “I am baptizing you with water, but there is one coming, very soon, who is more powerful than I am.”
This is when Jesus, whose ministry was not clear to him yet, really needed a teacher and he chose his cousin John. Jesus became a part of John’s ministry and listened to what he told the people. Then one day, God chose Jesus out from the whole crowd of John’s followers and said to him, “You are my true son. It is time for you to begin your own ministry.” John, his teacher, watched him go and was very proud, as teachers are sometimes.
So there’s my best shot for 2012. Here are the three concerns I still have, this being an account for children to think about.
1. I have overdone the reliance of Jesus on John’s ministry. I was driven to it by my designation of John as a “teacher” of Jesus and I was driven to that by Luke’s choice to commit nearly all of the first chapter to the birth of John. I have chosen a historical solution to a problem that is really only a narrative problem. The historical problem, however, is Luke’s and the narrative problem is mine, so I’m choosing to solve my problem.
2. The heavenly host celebrate peace on earth of “all who bear God’s blessing.” There are some exegetical problems with that phrasing, but I’m OK with what I’ve done with them. As I phrase it as a story for children, I have to find a way to deal with this new translation—a blessing the kids are likely to see as quite exclusive—especially if they have heard “Peace on earth, good will to men.” I skipped over Simeon’s observation that the baby he was holding in his arms would cause the fall of many in Israel. I thought I could do without it. But here is that same problem with the angels and I don’t think I can do without them.
3. Simeon appears to have exceeded his “best deceased by” date. He is eager for death, as I read it, although he is even more eager to see the Lord’s promised messiah. I wonder how to put his eagerness (“….at last, I can die…”) for the kids. I muffled it a little bit with the cliché “die happy” but the rest of it sits there.
I have two more years to think about this. Sage advice would be appreciated.
 The father had been named Zechariah some years earlier.