The dictionary defines fancy as "Delusion, unfounded belief; faculty of calling up things not present, of inventing imagery"; fantastic is defined as "extravagantly fanciful"; while fantasy is a "fantastical design; whimsical speculation". Is the Christmas story in the same category – is the Christmas story a fantasy?
Honesty compels me to admit that there is much fantasy involved in our Christmas celebrations. Children's nativity plays are often exercises in imagination. Likewise many carols that we sing give considerable room for poetic license. Take the wise men, for instance. Down through the centuries there has been much speculation about their identity: we talk of the three kings, and even give them names, but there is no foundation for this. Even the very date of Christmas is probably an exercise in fantasy
Not surprisingly some conclude that the Christmas story as a whole is a fantasy - an invention of the imagination. In this respect it is unhelpful that Christmas is also the season of pantomimes; for the story of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus runs the risk of becoming the ultimate pantomime
Yet when we look at the Gospel accounts, we discover that the evangelists themselves were writing serious stuff. They were not in the business of creating fairy stories: rather they were telling it how it was. Significantly Luke who tells us most about the Christmas story, is the Gospel writer who makes it most clear that he has been engaged in proper historical research. He begins his account of the life of Jesus for Theophilus with these words:
Many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message. And so, your Excellency, because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything you have been taught. (Luke 1.1-4).
Luke takes care to set the birth of Jesus within a historical context: It was "when Quirinius was the governor of Syria" that Joseph and Mary went down to Bethlehem in response to a census ordered by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2.1-4).
This doesn't mean that the Christmas story was an ordinary straightforward historical event. There is nothing ordinary or straightforward about God entering the world in human form. The most staggering words ever penned are those found in the prologue to John's Gospel. There John begins:
In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God and the Word was God…. The word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory. (John 1.1,14)
I freely confess: it does seem fantastic. And yet, it is not fantasy. Read the Gospels and see if there is any other explanation for the life Jesus lived, other than the fact that he was and is the Son of God.
At Christmas we celebrate not a fantasy, but a reality: the reality of God's love for us in Jesus; the reality of love which took human form; the reality of a love which is for you and for me today. Listen again to John:
He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him. Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God’s children. (John 1.11)
Let me encourage you to read the Gospels and discover the truth of the Jesus story.
Published at 12 p.m.
Paul is the chairman of Ministry Today, as also the College of Baptist Ministers, and from 1993 – 2014 was Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. He can be contacted at [email protected].
© Paul Beasley-Murray, 2010 - 2015.
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