The real story: Seeing God at Christmas
With a global progression of disasters this past year, both natural and man-made, it feels like we, too, are lost in a dark, swirling storm.
I am one of those people who love Christmas, playing Christmas music in July and decorating my home the moment the calendar turns to December. But it bothers me when the first heralds of the season are the blow-up Santa decorations in stores immediately following Halloween or my children’s squabbles over the Sears Wish Book to complete their Christmas “I want” lists.
Last year I was leading our church’s Sunday school program for the first week of Advent, and decided to print off colouring sheets as an extra activity if time allowed. I googled “Christmas colouring template.” What came up were pages and pages of Santas, sleighs and snowmen. Even Mickey Mouse made the list before a single image related to the real Christmas story showed up. It made me mad to see how easily people forget the guest of honour at the biggest birthday party in the world.
From skyscrapers to the stable
Last December I visited New York City for the first time. As NYC is known for its extravagant Christmas celebrations, my sisters and I planned to see all the iconic New York decorations and window displays. We started the weekend off with the Christmas Spectacular by the Radio City Rockettes. Most of the dazzling scenes were, as expected, full of stories about presents and Santa Claus. Then, as the show drew to a close, I was completely surprised by the closing act. As wise men and camels marched across the stage, the chorus burst into a powerful rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” filling that infamous Radio City Music Hall with the words “Glory to the newborn King.” The beautiful nativity scene that came to life onstage was mesmerizing.
The Living Nativity scene has been part of the Christmas show since its opening in 1933. Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, who prays a public blessing over the animals and performers who are a part of this show, described this scene as a true reminder that the message of Christmas is living and continues to go on.
As that weekend unfolded, I continued to be surprised by the ways we saw God in that city. It wasn’t under the magnificent marble arches of St. Patrick’s Cathedral but under the sandstone arches of the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park as the stunning voices of the Boyd Family singers echoed against the Minton encaustic tiled ceilings and the words of “O Holy Night” floated up to where we were standing. The Boyd Family, now called Peace Industry Music Group, share their gift of music in New York to promote the idea of peace through Christ.
Downtown, under the tycoon towering skyscrapers of Wall Street, we watched as a young man from the Salvation Army sat down on the cobblestones to give lunch to a homeless man. He didn’t just pass him food and continue walking; they shared the meal together with a warm familiarity.
Searching for Christmas
Growing up in a Dutch Canadian home, our shelves were full of short chapter books written by W.G. Van de Hulst. I loved it when my parents would read these books to me and can remember how proud I was when I was able to read the simple stories by myself. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that these cherished tales were recently republished by Inheritance Publications in Neerlandia, Alberta, and that I could now share them with my children.
One of my favourite Van de Hulst stories is “The Search for Christmas,” a tale where two small children try to find baby Jesus on Christmas Day. Little Princess Esmerelda thinks Jesus must be living in the tiny house nestled deep into the forest because she knew Jesus was poor and was born in a stable. Rex, the little boy who lives in that tiny house, believes that Jesus must be in the castle that towers above the tree-line because he knew that Jesus was a royal baby. Both children set off into the snowy woods. After meeting each other and discovering that Jesus wasn’t at either of their homes, they are disappointed. The forest was getting darker and darker. The children realize they are now lost in the darkness, with a snowstorm setting in.
Seeing through the storm
With a global progression of disasters this past year, both natural and man-made, it feels like we, too, are lost in a dark, swirling storm. The futility – knowing we can’t fix the mess we have made of this world – brings us to our knees. Everything can feel so beyond our control and influence. When neighbours question “Where is your God in all of this? Why would he let this happen?” it is hard to find the right words to explain.
Wisdom shows up in small packages. It was my nephew that muttered, “I wonder what plague is coming next?” There are strong parallels between what happened in Egypt so long ago to what is happening globally today . . . the same hardness of hearts by leaders, the same apathy towards victims of the plagues and the seeming silence of God to the cries of help.
That same nephew, our pocket-sized theologian, said that the Matthew West song, “Do Something” was the message that the whole world needed to hear: “God, why don’t you do something? He said, ‘I did . . . I created you.’”
The rest of the story
In that swirling storm in the forest, the lost children in Van de Hulst’s story are rescued by an elderly couple; they are fed and brought to warm up by a crackling fire. As Esmeralda and Rex explain why they were in the forest, the old lady realizes the children only knew part of the Christmas story.
She says, “Listen, I’ll tell you where you can find him.” She tells the children the whole story, from Jesus’ arrival to his ascension. The lady explains that even though Esmeralda and Rex didn’t see Jesus, “He knows everything and sees everything. He also saw you two when you were lost in the dark forest. He knew what you were looking for. He took care of you and kept you safe. He brought you here to this house.”
The old lady in Van de Hulst’s Christmas tale recognized how important it was to tell the children the rest of the story, that Jesus wants to live in their hearts. How many people today only know part of the story? Or none at all?
That night, when the children were safe in their own beds, both Rex and Esmeralda prayed to Jesus. The story ends with, “The Lord Jesus saw them. He heard them. And he was there with them. And that – that was the real Christmas, the most beautiful Christmas of all.”
God with us
The Israelites were saved by a tiny package hidden in the reeds, and, centuries later, we were saved by a tiny package wrapped in a manger. But that story isn’t over yet. And we are part of the plot.
Seeing the Rockefeller Center Tree, the UNICEF Snowflake, the Rockettes and the 5th Avenue Christmas displays in NYC were a dream come true for me. But stumbling upon a complete Gutenberg Bible in the Morgan Library, hearing the celestial acoustics of the Boyd family beside the Bethesda Fountain, and seeing the love shown by the Salvation Army man, those were the things that made that trip, well, magical. Amidst millions of people and rows of skyscrapers, I saw how the story of that tiny baby who came to save us is being told in many ways on the streets of New York. I saw that the Guest of Honour of Christmas is certainly not absent or forgotten.
How am I telling the story? My story . . . God’s story? Am I sharing the magic of what a tiny baby born under the Bethlehem skyline means to the world? As the Matthew West song proclaims:
It’s not enough to do nothing
It’s time for us to do something
We are the salt of the earth
We are a city on a hill
We’re never gonna change the world
By standing still.