Surprised at Christmas

December 18, 2014

I feel sorry for pastors at Christmas. They show up to preach about the stories we've heard each year for decades. And they've preached the same texts for years, perhaps even tiring of their own explanations. I pastored a church for two years so that meant only two Advent seasons, which I easily filled before needing to repeat myself.

Perhaps we know Christmas too well. We no longer allow the stories to surprise us, shock us, challenge us. 

A two-year-old around can help bring back some of the wonder. On Saturday, we trekked to Bethlehem to experience the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. A local church puts on an incredible "Journey to Bethlehem" living nativity in the woods behind the church. With a couple hundred volunteers, they take visitors on a trail to get a taste of life on that holy night. I remembered the event from my childhood. But this time I enjoyed it even more as I watched my son soak it in. 

The event started in a room in the church decorated to be a humble home in Nazareth. As the cloaked family talked to us (their extended family members), Roman soldiers burst into the room to announce the need to travel for a census. As a soldier first barked out a command from behind us, my son jumped and spun around. His eyes never left the solider and his mouth never closed. 

I worried he might be too frightened. However, as the "head" of our family started to leave to lead us on the journey, my son leapt up, ran past several other people, and dutifully followed right behind the man's robe. He was hooked. Along the journey, we met shopkeepers on the edge of Nazareth, other travelers, shepherds, magi, thieves, more soldiers, and lots of animals. At each station, my son stopped and stared, taking it all in. Then he faithfully marched on to follow our leader into the dark woods.

My son showed surprise as the events unfolded that helped me realize which parts of the story I knew too well. As the shepherds spoke to us, we waited in anticipation for the angels to appear since we thought the little guy would enjoy them. Instead, he stared at them with a mix of confusion and fright. But that's probably exactly how the shepherds felt! Otherwise, the angel wouldn't have needed to say, "fear not." We make the angels out to be sweet, angelic beings singing pretty lullabies. But it was likely terrifying to be a shepherd that night. Later, my son still isn't sure what to think about the angels. He says they scared him and then adds they didn't scare him. I guess the jury's still out.

As we arrived in Bethlehem, we were met by more Roman soldiers to be counted and taxed. As the solider yelled and threatened us, I chuckled - especially as he moved my wife's scarf to see who was hiding behind the Eskimo-like bundling. As we walked away from the station, my son looked up, shook his body, and said that guy scared him. He has repeated that each time we've talked about Bethlehem since. He rightly captured the emotion of the moment. While I noted their fake swords, he saw dangerous, imperial might. Maybe we would think about Christmas differently if we read the stories from a position of less power and security.

Fortunately, we saw a bunch of animals, which helped him not worry too much about the soldiers. Sheep, goats, and donkeys. What could be better than that?

As we approached the stable with Mary, Joseph, and baby (doll) Jesus, my son visited with goats at the back of the stable. He couldn't see anything and didn't seem to realize what Mary and Joseph were telling us about. We were late getting to the stable and had to hang out in the back with the goats because he spent so much time with a donkey. He kept reaching out for it and yelling "hi, donkey!" So for the first time all night we were in the back of the pack.

But as everyone else headed back to the church, my wife suggested our son go up and look. He seemed shy at first, but Mary invited him up. He got his own personal time with the three and got to go see the baby Jesus up close. Later we asked him what his favorite part of Bethlehem was, fully expecting him to say the donkey (he does a great "hee haw"). Nothing else had earned nearly as excited of a response. However, he quickly responded, "I like baby Jesus." He still gives that answer, which makes me feel like an excellent parent!

I looked at the doll version of Jesus and felt disappointed (even though it was too cold for a real baby), but my son soaked it in with wonder. While I saw it, he experienced it. We took him hoping he'd learn more about Christmas, but perhaps I'm the one who needs the lesson.