Every year when Christmas approaches, I find myself struck by both the familiarity of the Christmas story and by its strangeness. The contrast with how we understand and get to know each other can be a good way of making the point.
One of the things that is often said about attending a funeral is the way that the eulogy or family tribute tells you so many things you didn’t know about the person who has died. In particular you often discover where someone grew up and how they spent their childhood. In that way for many of us one of the last things we discover about some people is the way they spent their early years.
What applies to someone’s early years, applies even more strikingly to the circumstances or date of their birth. Discovering the date of someone’s birthday tends to be something that happens only when we know them quite well already; discovering where they were born probably happens not at all. Unless the person has been born in exotic circumstances, there is little or no story to be told about the birth itself.
The contrast with the birth of Jesus could not be greater. For many of us the last thing we know about each other is the first thing we know about Jesus. Indeed for lots of people it might even be the only thing known about Jesus – when and where he was born.
The strangeness of our knowledge of Jesus is then compounded by the way we celebrate his birthday. In contrast to birthday celebrations of friends and family, on Jesus’ birthday we focus on the birth itself and find ourselves re-telling the story again and again. No matter how dramatic the trip to the hospital, no matter how hazardous the labour, human births do not offer a story that can withstand such repetition.
But the strangeness of the story is its point - for the details of the birth convey an underlying meaning about God’s availability and inclusivity. Jesus is pushed to the edges, born in obscurity, and visited by the lowly. That way we know there is room for everyone at the Inn and that Jesus has been born for us all.
The story, however, is not just strange, it is also beautiful and therein lies its hazard. For so beautiful is the story, so capable of repetition, that we can get stuck with it.
So as we celebrate Christmas once again and delight in the strangeness of the story we should not forget that, for all its beauty, the story is unfinished. If an obituary told us no more than the unusual circumstances of the deceased’s birth, we would feel short changed. We would find ourselves asking at least two further questions. ‘What happened next?’ And ‘Where do I fit in the story?’
If we were to ask that of a fellow human, we should surely ask it of the person of Jesus. The celebration of Christmas is an invitation to do just that.