Friday

Reflections on the Christmas Story

When I was a child I was a "Little House on the Prairie" book series expert. I had read every book and was quite excited when the television series started. However, the more I watched, the more the series disappointed me because it really strayed from the story line of the books. This affected my enjoyment of the series. Had I not been an 'expert' because of my exposure to the books, the series probably would have been quite enjoyable standing on its own. But the longer the series continued, the more it drifted from the experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the thoughts and views she expressed in her writing about those experiences. The series was an imposter.

Most people feel that books are better than television or movie adaptations. TV and movie writers have to cut things out because too many details interfere with the visual flow of the story, and time constraints - and budget - limit the options. The only way to do a really well-written story justice in video format is to present it as a mini-series, or as a main production followed by sequels. Hollywood productions of the Christmas story are no different, and the book is definitely better.For the 2011 Advent season, I wanted to concentrate on the chapters in Luke and Matthew that dealt with the birth of Christ. I didn't bother with the genealogies. I concentrated on Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 1:18 through 2. I read these chapters in sections and tried to put them in order as best I could. I then wrote in my journal detailing my thoughts about the scriptures. It was a great way to spend my devotional time for the month of December. Next year I want to research and add the prophecies, but that's for later posts.

To begin my study, and the Christmas season, I decided to watch a recently-produced DVD of the Christmas story called "The Nativity Story." The film is pretty well done as far as presenting the cultural milieu of that time. I really like the scenes before the birth of Christ; however, when it does get to the end of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem and to the birth of Christ I find the movie drifting further and further away from what biblical scholars tell us was a more realistic and more likely flow of events. In the video story, the writers had Mary in labor as soon as she and Joseph reached Bethlehem. That same evening, she was in the stable, delivered Jesus, and lo and behold, there were the shepherds, who must have really had their sandals flapping as they hustled to town after the angelic visitation! Meanwhile, on the day Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, the wise men were visiting with King Herod. They arrived at the stable almost as soon as the shepherds, with the screenwriters posing the group in such a way that it looks like an on-screen Christmas card. I found that to be a bit much, if the truth be known.

The wise men arrived just in the nick of time, with gifts that would help Mary and Joseph travel to Egypt that very night. In this film, Herod apparently figures very quickly that the wise men have tricked him, rather than determining this after the sages have made their trip to Bethlehem and back. So, that very night, when baby Jesus is not even 12 hours old, the old tyrant hands down his edict to slaughter male babies under two years of age. So in a mad rush, the script writers made everything that scholars tell us probably took quite a bit more time - years, possibly - in the scriptures happen in one night. And we can't point only at this video for this; most versions of the Christmas Story are very similar in sequence and timing of events.

If you like the movie I'm talking about, that's fine. I like it up until the very last scenes. However, if your kids or grandkids watch it I think there is good opportunity for discussion with them. They need to know that the real nativity of Christ and the events that took place surrounding it did not happen in a mad Hollywood rush. God actually took his time in allowing his child to be born. Luke 2:6 says, "While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son ..." It does not say "as soon as they arrived ...". The Holy Family also stayed in Bethlehem a while. Luke 2 says that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised on the eighth day like the Law required. The chapter also describes how Simeon and Anna told everyone within hearing distance that baby Jesus was the Messiah. Even though Jerusalem isn't that far from Bethlehem, we find that the Holy Family traveled to the Temple and returned to Bethlehem without interference from Herod. In fact, Herod had no clue that the Christ-child had been born until the wise men told him. Then, the wise men visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a house - "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him ..." Matthew 2:11. Matthew also refers to Jesus a child, not an infant.

The point at which the wise men actually visited either Herod or Jesus is difficult to determine, but the fact pattern presented in the Bible clearly does not point to this happening on the day and evening of Jesus' birth. As far as the timing goes for the flight to Egypt we cannot be sure. However, given that Herod's orders were to kill every male child under two years old, it would seem that Herod did not issue those orders the same night of Jesus' birth, and further, that Herod - and the wise men - were unsure of exactly when Jesus had been born.

These are details that may seem nit-picky, but I think they greatly affect the flow of the story, and the dynamics of the relationships of the players involved. The story really is about the birth of a child who will be the salvation of humankind - as well a threat to the established order within the existing religious structure, and culture, and to the power of the Roman empire - and all the drama that unfolds as these things become known throughout the land.