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Once Upon a Manger
Some years ago, Garrison Keillor shared the Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas. Number one was not to spend too much time shopping for gifts that are going to spend the next 30 years in a bottom drawer and sell for 35 cents at an estate sale. Just buy them all sweatpants. Number two, don’t sweat the dinner. All you need is potatoes, bread crumbs, a frozen veggie, cranberries in a can, a big bird, and a tub of butter. Order pies from a bakery. I won’t share all seven, but I was intrigued by number three. When planning your Christmas dinner, don’t think of the folks as dinner guests…think of them as the cast and your job is to make the event entertaining.
The best way to have a memorable Christmas is to seat bachelor Uncle Earl with the squirting mistletoe tie next to the cousins in the Armani suits and the $100 haircuts who are trying to hide the fact they’re from Iowa. Sit your brother-in-law from Roswell, New Mexico who moved there in hopes of reconnecting with his Martian ancestors next to the sister who worked for Michele Bachmann. They probably have more to talk about than you might think. Place the brother who brought the venison sausage and the pheasants for dinner next to your cousin Wanda the vegetarian who changed her name to Moonflower. Too many people, Garrison Keillor says, only invite people who get along, think and act and look alike and that’s like trying to form a choir and only recruiting sopranos. And then what you get feels more like a committee meeting, a discussion group or a memorial service. A good Christmas always has some moment where some crisis occurs or is resurrected from the past and somebody needs forgiveness for something. A GREAT Christmas has several of them.
Sound far-fetched to you? Let’s go back 2 millennia and see the guest list, according to Matthew and Luke, invited to that very first Christmas. You have a young Jewish carpenter from a small town no one ever heard of and his pregnant teenage fiancée, you have a group of homeless shepherds who live in the fields with their sheep, you have a host of angels on a choir field trip with one spokesangel whose job it is to go around telling people not to be afraid. You have three intellectuals with lots of money and time on their hands carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh whose GPS is oriented to an unusual star (turn left at the next oasis), an 84-year-old widow who spends every day hanging around the temple and her counterpart named Simeon. In the background, you have a paranoid king, a governor with the unfortunate name of Quirinius and a clueless Emperor who all figure they should be major players in this drama but who don’t even get called to audition. And of course, the baby. At the center of it all, the reason for the coming together of all these disparate and desperate lives, the baby. A baby whose birth is not a Hallmark moment as much as it is a crisis of Biblical proportions. Lives will be changed, authority called into question, religious leaders called to account, and a whole planet of people needing forgiveness for something or hope in everything will find their attentions drawn to him.
This story of Christmas, God’s story written on the world, assembles a memorable cast of characters around the birth of a child. Memorable and diverse casts have been assembling ever since, seeking to connect that story with their own: seeking a star to guide their way, seeking a message of hope and peace, and wanting to trust that God is not so far removed that God won’t show up in the stink and funk of the stables we call home. It’s our story, don’t you know. It’s our story, God’s story, I hope you know.