There is only one time a year that I miss the King James Bible. Somehow the Christmas story only sounds right in 16th century Elizabethan English (the way God said it). When I hear it I know where I am and what day it is.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
The New Revised Standard Version just doesn’t get me there: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
I would much rather hear the angels proclaim “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord,” than “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” After three Christmases in New Zealand, I’ve learned the NRSV version doesn’t even spell “Saviour” correctly.
My cleaving to the older version is not unlike my daughters’ reaction when I would change the words in their favourite story at bedtime. “Daddy, that’s not how it goes!” said with all the exasperation and disapproval a five-year old can muster.
One Christmas Eve, long ago, I planned to go to a Unitarian Universalist candlelight service. It was my first Christmas since becoming their Administrator, but I did have some trepidation about what it would be like because of their hymnal. It is a fine piece of work with many hymns new to me that I would later grow to love, but there are also many familiar ones or so I thought until I read the words. They had been altered to reflect their progressive and inclusive point of view. I applauded that, but then I discovered nothing was exempt, even the Christmas carols had new words. It turned out I had nothing to fear. Being in candlelight, no one could read the hymnal. The congregation sang all the old familiar words.
Part of what we love about Christmas is the familiarity. That is also the problem.
One of the reasons many say Christmas is for children is our enjoyment of their wonder. We smile as they proudly announce, “I’m a shepherd!” in the Nativity play. We hope the photographer captures their earnestness as they tell Santa at the mall their dearest wishes. We focus on their eyes as we light the tree for the first time. For them, it is all new not familiar. For us, it is all familiar. We may be wistful for Christmas’ past. We may grieve for those no longer here to share in Christmas pudding. Christmas is for “grown-ups” a time of memories – some sweet, some sad, but all familiar.
The familiar traditions of one generation re-lived at this time of year are how we introduce the next generation to the Christmas story. In some ways both win, but in other ways the older generation loses. We have lost the wonder.
It is not all our fault. It is part of the human experience and memory is part of how we survive as a species. In and of themselves memories are not bad. Many I cherish. But it is also true that there are many I wish I could delete from my database.
The problem with memories is that they are about the past and not the now. Memories are about wonder lost.
This Christmas my wish is not for the impossible. My wish is that we not wall ourselves off from wonder. I don’t wish that we might somehow miraculously develop amnesia about Christmases past. Nor is it that we not hope for brighter Christmas futures. My wish is that we all hear the story in whatever translation, as if for the first time. It might help if we put ourselves in the place of those who heard it before it was written down and how they wondered.
They were likely to have been slaves or poor or diseased. They were outcasts blamed for being outcast. They were the unclean, unacceptable; unrighteous and as far from God as you can possibly get. They knew because they were rejected and despised by society. They knew because they were without hope.
Then they heard the Christmas story (sadly for them in Greek or perhaps Aramaic, but not Elizabethan English). Tyranny, judgment, and deprivation were what were familiar to them. What wasn’t familiar was that God also has human form. And not just any human form, but one like theirs. If Jesus had been born in Caesar’s palace, it would’ve been a familiar story to them, but they could not have related. But a bastard born in a stable was something else indeed. Wonder of wonders.
It was their first inkling that God is not to be feared or appeased, but to be discovered in the most unlikely of places – themselves. It was something radically new. Wonder of wonders.
God is not external and disconnected from themselves the story said but part and parcel of who we are. And who you are. Wonder of wonders.
For them this story wasn’t magical or otherworldly. But it wasn’t about the familiar ways of being righteous either: praying the right way or believing the right things or performing the right rituals. What did a baby know about those things? The story is just about the way things are, whether we are born in a stable or in a castle. God is in us. Wonder of wonders.
Since the beginning of time humans have sought to overcome the gap between the gods and themselves. The wonder of the Christmas story is that there never was a gap. We embody the divine. It is revealed in our compassion and love for one another and ourselves. Glad tidings indeed!!
When the familiar blinds us to the essence of this Christmas truth, we let another Christmas go by, wonder lost.