Christmas. It’s the “most wonderful time of the year.” Certainly for many that is true. It’s a time to see family and friends. To give and receive gifts. Listen to Christmas songs. Hang lights. Put up a tree. Eat Christmas treats. But when all the wrapping paper has been stripped away, when all the bows have been undone, what is Christmas, really? Just another holiday? Or something more?
Before I answer that question, let me take a step back. As a writer and a lover of books, it should be no surprise I place a special value on stories. They’re the reason this site exists. “Something in the genre of imagination.” That’s what I write. To some that may seem a rather vain or frivolous pursuit. Who has time for chasing rainbows when there are bills to be paid, deals to be made, and papers to grade? I mean, if you’re going to read at all, shouldn’t you at least read something useful, like history, or a book on fitness?
But stories are not just mindless entertainment (at least they shouldn’t be). Stories—good stories—are about life itself, just abstracted. And therein lies their value. Because life has a way of blunting our awareness of important things. Things like family, friendships, courage, integrity, and purity. Most of the time life runs roughshod over such things. It turns a blind eye to the eternal, to first things, leaving us to think that all that matters is what’s “practical”, what gets us to the next point along that long line between life and death. We’ve got to grow up and we’ve got to get ahead. And stories? Those are indulgences. Something better left for children or people with too much time on their hands.
Something which is not successive
But deep down, we know that is not what life is about. There is more to life than just a series of happenings. Most everyone, when they’re not harried and distressed, longs for a point to their pursuits. They want to live life well. And that takes thought. It takes effort. It takes intentionality.
Some attempt to achieve this through study and scholarly pursuits. And that’s certainly helpful if we want to learn what it means to live well. Some throw themselves into causes and volunteer work, finding fulfillment in serving others. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. Some throw themselves into relationships, seeking to find acceptance and meaning in family and friends. And such things are essential. But for all the platitudes and principles we could go off and study, for all our hours of suffering and service, for the multiplicity of contacts filling up our address books, there is something about stories that captures and distills the things we’re seeking in those other pursuits. Something which helps remind us what the point of all those other pursuits really is. As C.S. Lewis puts it:
“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our successive moments something that is now successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done—or very nearly done—in stories.”
Stories have the incredible quality of slowing down time, of making us attend to, however briefly, true reality. We may think we are reading about dragons and knights, or space ships and aliens, but if the story has been written well, if it has that essence of truth to it, what we are really reading about is ourselves. But it’s not even that, it’s about ourselves and our place in the universe. We may be dressed up in imaginary garb, traipsing through lands not depicted on any known chart, but it is we who walk those paths just as much as the heroes we are reading about. And if we’re willing to listen, if we keep our eyes and hearts open, we just may find that the hero’s courage sounds an echoing beat within our own soul. The devotion and sacrifice Sam displays as he carries Frodo on his shoulders to the cracks of Mt. Doom may—wonder of wonders—rise up within us somewhere between the pages. And while a good story may not change us in any noticeable way, it will change the way we see the world. And that’s what opens the door to make change possible.
The greatest story ever told
Which brings us back to where this started: Christmas. You may not think about it much, but Christmas is, in essence, a story. This story has a hero called Jesus. His birth has been prophesied for hundreds of years. But it’s not just an ordinary birth. It’s a miraculous one. For Jesus is no mere man. He’s God in the flesh. He’s the Creator in a manger. He steps into history from beyond the pale, from beyond our world. And even though many are awaiting him, his appearance catches almost everyone off guard. And it’s been catching people off guard ever since.
It is the greatest story ever told. That may be a cliche, but it’s true nonetheless. Because unlike The Illiad, The Tempest, The Lord of the Rings, and The Time Machine, this is the one time when a story actually came true. It is more than just history. With history we just find out what happened. But with pure story we also learn the why. And that’s the triumph of stories. We need to know not just what happened, but why it happened. Because we need to know that ourselves if we’re ever to find out the reason for living. And no story explains the why of reality more than that of Jesus.
Don’t let this story pass you by
As wonderful as this story is, for many people that is all it is, a story. To them Christmas is just another holiday, just another excuse to get a day off or spend time with family and friends. In 2016 it can seem foolish to believe in the miracle of Christmas. We’re too knowledgable and sophisticated to think that such things could actually be true. But don’t mistake ignorance for knowledge. The fact that 2000 years of history have blurred and blunted the ability of some to accept what was recorded as true is cause for sadness, not certainty. Such is always the way with prophecy and the events which move the very wheels of history themselves. We miss the truth of Christmas because we have begun by presuming ourselves wise and dismissing it out of hand, simply assuming it could not possibly be true. It reminds me in a way of the passage from the film version of The Lord of the Rings:
Much that once was is lost…for none now live who remember it.
But if you miss the reality of the event of Christmas, you’ve missed everything. This is the one place in all the universe where story and history met. This is the story. All others, if they have any value at all, are only worthwhile because of this story. And all of history, if it has any meaning at all, does so only because of the birth, life, and death of this one man, this hero from beyond time and space. For as in all good stories, it is not just Jesus we discover when we allow the Christmas story to unfold into our lives. It is we ourselves whom we find both unraveled and put back together in him and through him. Jesus came to set men right with God, against whom we have rebelled. The world has fallen into darkness, but he came in the fullness of time to offer peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and new life to a worn out, decadent, and defiant humanity. It’s the most dramatic, most amazing, most glorious turn of events in all of history and in all of literature.
As J.R.R. Tolkien said:
“There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
And that, my friend, is why we celebrate Christmas.