How do you tell the Christmas Story?

In the beginning was the word. The first Sunday of Christmas belongs to the introduction to John’s Gospel, what is often called the “Hymn to the Logos.” This beautiful and esoteric passage of scripture leaves behind the shepherds, the angels, Bethlehem entirely. John is interested in high philosophy, high theology. By the time John’s Gospel was written, Luke’s Christmas story was well known. Place and context still mattered. They are assumed in John’s text. But John is taking the next step. John is asking questions of meaning. What does it mean that God was born for us? In a specific place? At a specific time? What does it mean for us that God took on our human life?

I want to begin this morning by reading a different poem, a similar poem to the one we read in the Gospel. For the past several years I have been a fan of Richard Blanco, since hearing him read at the second inaugural for President Obama. Blanco is a Cuban-American refugee poet. He arrived in our country at 45 days old. I’d commend to you his latest book, “How to Love a Country” as a meditation on being American in these times.

But this morning I want to read an earlier work of his that echoes what John’s Gospel is also echoing this morning. Both John the Gospeler, and Richard the Poet have re-written the creation story. They both start with the same line, “in the beginning.” Listen to just a few lines from Blanco’s “Havanasis.”

In the beginning, before God created Cuba, the earth was chaos empty of form and without music. The spirit of God stirred over the dark tropical waters and God said, “Let there be music” and a soft conga began a one-two beat in the background of the chaos…

What I love about Blanco’s poem is the blatant incorporation of culture, for humor, yes, but also to make a point about God. Blanco re-tells the well-versed creation story, and Blanco makes it HIS story. And there is delight, and laughter, and deep theology. God intends, loves, is interested in the music of the people, specifically the Cuban people.

God is real. God speaks in a specific, real, daily, contextual ways. God cares about what the people care about. God listens to the people, in specific, culturally contextual ways. God’s real-ness, God’s here-ness are at the heart of the poem.

What Blanco does is really not so far from what John was doing in the first verses of his Gospel. John also-rewrote the poetry of creation. John speaks the language, not of conga, but of Greek philosophy. This WORD, the Logos, that came into the world, was a high concept of Greek academic thought. John is saying, what you care about, what you debate, what you love. God is there. God can be located in the here and now, even in the abstract concepts of philosophy.

John’s Gospel and Blanco’s Havansis beg a question: How would you write the story? How would you contextualize? How would you tell of God’s coming into your world? It’s not blasphemy to re-tell. Episcopalians don’t really worry about blasphemy anyway. We trust God can sort between good poetry and bad.

So What would you say, what images would you choose to communicate the story of God’s coming into the world? Would you worry about what John worries about? The Logos, or would you speak the language of string theory, and dark matter, would you tell the story of the kinetic energy behind creation, the very stuff of God which created the world, gave life and breath to the people, chose to dwell with us. Chose us? Chose to be one of us? How would you tell this story? How would you communicate that God came to dwell?

Make sure you tell the whole story. The theology matters at Christmas. This radical message, that the Word became flesh, it matters. But if we do not understand the context, we miss the theology.

John’s poem meditates not just on the Word, but on light and darkness, on those who hear the message and those who will not hear it. These are themes that John will continue throughout the Gospel. And they are themes which Christians have used, across our history, to bludgeon folks of other faiths. Let’s be clear: John’s Gospel was not written as a textbook for anti-Semitism. John’s Gospel was not written for the powerful. The Gospeler never imagined that one day the Roman emperor would declare the empire Christian. To John that probably would have sounded preposterous.

Where you tell the story matters. The story of Christmas was not told originally in the halls of power. As I said in my sermon on Christmas Eve, where God chose to dwell matters. Notice God does not choose, not Augustus’ Rome, nor Quirinius’ Antioch, not Herod’s Jerusalem. God is not born even in the center of Bethlehem, a marginal village outside the capital. God is born outside the village, to an unmarried couple who could not find a roof for their heads. God pays attention to the edge of the edge of human existence.

This context is assumed in John. We know the story of Jesus birth because it was told by women, and slaves, and refugees. These Gospels were handed down for centuries in a religion that was first thought of as a last refuge for the outcasts. Good Romans did not become Christians. We know the story of Jesus’ birth because it was told as a story of God’s joining in the resistance against the powers of the empire. We know the story of Christmas because this is a story that happened in a specific context, to a specific people, who saw that God’s attention turned where the world’s attention did not. God chose to dwell, to incarnate, the Word became flesh in the least likely of human circumstances. God cared about a people the world would have preferred to forget. God chose to dwell in a specific place.

That specificity matters as we tell the Christmas story. I’ve had friends ask, especially this year, “how can we celebrate Christmas with all that is happening in our world? With all the corruption, all the suffering, with families in detention at our Southern border, how can we celebrate?” To respond, I ask, what better story could we tell? But that God chose to be with us, in the dark, in the fear, in the insecurity. God chose an unlikely people at the edge of an empire, a family that we will read next week must flee the violent outbursts of their governor. God chose to be with the people who suffer. God chose to dwell with those who are vulnerable.

How do we tell this story in our own day? How do we make it real? The poets among us may have words, and words can be beautiful reminders. But words are just one way to write poetry. Words are just one way to remind folk that God is present. We can tell this story with our actions as well, by choosing to dwell, choosing to walk, choosing to advocate with the people God chooses. We can tell the Christmas story by following God to the least likely corners of our city. We can do the work of Christmas, as the great theologian Howard Thurman said, we can do the work of Christmas by reaching out, by feeding, by visiting, by telling the Gospel truth not only with our lips but in our lives.

We can tell the Christmas story in our own context when we bring joy where there is no joy, when we bring laughter where there is no laughter, when we bring music.

Perhaps we’ll finish where we began, with a few more lines from Richard Blanco, from the final days of Havanasis, his creation story:

God gave [the people] dominion over all the creatures and musical instruments and said unto them, “Be fruitful and multiply, eat pork, drink rum, make music and dance.” On the seventh day, God rested from the labors of his creation; He smiled upon the celebration and listened to their music.

Blanco’s poem was written in English, with a Cuban accent for sure, but I wonder if the re-write of creation would have meant as much if it wasn’t written by a refugee for other refugees. If the love in the poem wasn’t also a longing.

As you write your own Christmas story, know that longing is a part of the love. We know the light shines because it shines in the darkness. At Christmas, context matters. God chooses to become flesh, to dwell with us. When you tell the story of Christmas, remember to be specific. God is specific. God chooses to dwell where the need is greatest. That is a story our world still so needs to hear. Where does your version of the Christmas story begin?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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