(I wrote the following article several years ago, but think it’s still relevant today.)
During Advent, I often hear people say “Christmas is just for the kids.” I also hear people frequently complain that Christmas services often deal with too much “adult” material. I want to explore those concerns in this article.
While the Christmas traditions associated with gift-giving, Santa Claus, and happy family gatherings does indeed provide an enjoyable atmosphere for young children, those things have little in common with the Nativity story found in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. In fact, if we are concerned about the impact it might have on impressionable young children, we might need to censor the story so severely that virtually nothing is left but to say that “Jesus was born.” All but the most theologically conservative biblical scholars agree that the Nativity stories were never intended to provide historical details of Jesus’ birth, but rather to provide an introductory theological interpretation or overview of Jesus’ entire ministry – his life, death, and resurrection. But even if we were to take the story as historically factual, there are many elements that parents might not want their children exposed to.
Obedience to Dreams
In Matthew’s account, Joseph discovers that his fiancee is pregnant, and rather than create a public scandal, decides to quietly abandon his wedding plans. It’s easy to imagine how deeply hurt a man in that position would feel, and how disillusioned he would be with the moral character of his intended spouse. But then, he has a dream in which an angel instructs him to go ahead and marry her anyway because God is the One responsible this shocking and unexpected development. So Joseph gets up and does what he’s told in the dream. (In fact, he will respond to the instructions given to him in dreams several more times as this drama unfolds.)
But is this responsiveness to dream messages something we want to expose our children to? Do we want to encourage them to even entertain the idea that their dreams might be divinely inspired? Do we want to suggest that decisions about something as serious as choosing a spouse or finding a place to live should hinge on the power of dreams? Are we so confident that God speaks to us in our dreams that we’d like to encourage our kids to find God’s word for them there . . . and to act accordingly?
Most parents feel tremendous ambivalence about dealing with children’s questions about sex and reproduction. Although we want them to have adequate and reliable information, we usually try not to give them more information than they’re able to handle. We usually want to instill in them at an early age the idea that babies are the result of the wonderful love that two committed (i.e. married) people have for each other (. . . and then hope they won’t ask too many more questions about the process by which that happens!)
But both Matthew and Luke’s gospels indicate that Mary was pregnant before she was married. Not only that, but they go on to assure us that it’s not only OK but something to be happy about! Obviously, the Nativity stories don’t intend to advocate unwed motherhood, but if we expose our children to this story, are they going to know how to draw the line between when it’s OK and when it isn’t? Are you willing to take that chance? Are you ready to explain how to draw that line if your children ask?
Homelessness, Refugees, and Immigrants
Luke’s gospel states that Jesus’ first shelter was in a dirty, lowly stable and that his first bed was an animal’s feeding trough because there wasn’t any room at the local inn. In other words, on the night of Jesus’ birth, his parents were homeless “street people.” From the moment of his birth, he had more in common with transients and vagrants than he did with middle- or upper-class families who give birth in sanitary hospitals or lovely mansions. Luke seems to be going out of his way to remind readers that the world is a place where even the most wonderful, beautiful, and innocent children aren’t always welcomed or appreciated. Instead, they’re rejected and dismissed as unimportant and without value, having to settle for the most primitive accommodations just to survive.
Are we sure we want to introduce that serious and frightening truth to our young ones? Aren’t we worried that they’ll be traumatized by grim realities of homelessness? Don’t we worry that they will use their active imaginations to vividly identify with the emotions and dangers that afflict the lives of the homeless? Or are we willing to encourage them to go prowling the streets of our modern cities in order to see for themselves the Christ Child who may be being born today?
Furthermore, how will this story influence our children’s attitudes toward strangers and foreigners? We usually teach our children to be wary of strangers and to be careful about associating with the “wrong” kind of people. In our post-911 world, we may be particularly concerned about undocumented aliens, immigrants, and refugees from other lands. Aren’t we worried that the Nativity story will lead our children to have a more hospitable, welcoming attitude toward such people than we as parents might feel is warranted?
Politics is a subject that we don’t like to talk about much in church. But both Nativity stories liberally use words like “Son of David,” “Savior,” Son of the Most High,” “Christ/Messiah,” “King of the Jews” to describe Jesus. These are all highly political references. All the kings and emperors of the time used those titles to describe themselves. (Many of them also claimed to have had births accompanied by supernatural phenomena.) No early reader of the Nativity stories would have missed the point that the gospel writers were saying “This poor, insignificant child born in such obscure and scandalous circumstances is the TRUE leader of our people, and NOT the ones who currently sit in the chambers of political power.” These titles are political dynamite! They make claims that political leaders of the day could only hear as revolutionary and seditious. That’s why Matthew tells us that Herod wanted to kill the child. The message here is that not only is Jesus’ own life in constant danger from the political rulers of his day but that those who acclaim him as “Christ” are also in danger from those who would challenge Jesus’ right to have supreme control over our lives.
But are we willing to introduce our children to the fact that there’s an element of political disloyalty to current governmental officials that’s inherent in the Nativity story? Do we really want to expose our children to the idea that in Jesus we have someone with a higher claim to authority than presidents, congressmen, policemen, military personnel . . . or even their own parents?
Luke tells us that shepherds were working in nearby fields when Jesus was born and that they were visited by angels who told them the good news of the Savior’s birth. After the angels left, the shepherds decided to leave their appointed tasks and go see for themselves whether this was all true. So off they went, and sure enough, they found the child just as they were told they would, and they all ended up amazed and delighted by the whole experience.
But are we comfortable exposing our children to a story that might encourage them to walk off from their assigned responsibilities to investigate current rumors? “Angel” means “messenger,” and there’s nothing about the word that implies wings or white robes or halos. So how are our kids going to distinguish the “angels” from the other “messengers” they encounter who may offer them news about things they may be tempted to walk off and check out for themselves? If the owner of the sheep had come and found that his hired help had gone AWOL and left his sheep unprotected, he probably wouldn’t have been very happy about it. Neither would we, as parents, be very happy to find that our kids had wandered off somewhere and hadn’t stayed in the place we left them. (Interestingly, herding sheep in ancient times was often a job relegated to young children.) So what will our kids take from this story about what constitutes “responsible” behavior? Will they continue to listen to us, or will they listen to “angels?”
As you can see from the discussion above, the Nativity story is filled with potential land mines for the unsuspecting parent. Should we even expose our children to such volatile material? How can we let them hear this story without being afraid that it will give them nightmares . . . or worse, lead them into behavior that we may not approve? If we “censor” or “sanitize” the story from all these disturbing elements, then what do we have left?
There’s no getting around the fact that the Nativity story is not designed to lull our children to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. It’s not really a children’s story at all, but a story written for adults – adults who know the brutal and coarse ways of the world; who understand the heartbreak of a lover who feels betrayed; who understand the dilemma of an unwed mother; who know the bitter reality of homelessness and life on the streets; and who know that walking off a job usually has serious consequences. It is for such people that the story is written, and it is written in such a way as to jolt, shock, and dazzle them with the utter unlikelihood that such a series of difficult situations and circumstances could possibly contain a revelation of God’s ultimate act of love for the world.
No, the Nativity story is not for kids, but for adults who have adult experiences and face adult problems. Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us have thought about it before. Against the background of our culture, with it’s Santa Clauses, Christmas trees, and flying reindeer, it strikes us as a violation – an unwanted intrusion – into the comfortable familiarity of our holiday traditions. Like Jesus adult ministry, it challenges us to embrace something radically new and different that God is bringing into our experience. But in order to embrace that new reality, it requires us to abandon some of the ideas, traditions, and behaviors that are no longer relevant to the new situation in which we find ourselves. And just as Jesus’ ministry was met with resistance and hostility, so do we sometimes feel ourselves angrily resisting a Christmas message that turns out to be much different than we had expected.
Perhaps the following questions will help us to figure out how we should deal with the Nativity story in the year ahead:
• What is the essence of the Christmas message for you? Where is that essential element found in the birth narratives?
• In light of the discussion above, what is the most important element of the Nativity story that we would like to emphasize to our children? How much of the Nativity story would have to be ignored or downplayed to do that?
• The birth of Jesus (as well as his life, death, and resurrection) challenges the status quo of his day – religiously, socially, politically, and economically. How can we celebrate Christmas in such a way that allows it to challenge our lifestyles, but still be a joyful experience?
• What aspects of our Christmas traditions should be maintained at all costs, and which should be abandoned or reinvented? Why?
• Should the Christmas story always make us happy, or are there aspects of the story that should make us uncomfortable? What is the basis of our joy at Christmas? What about it should cause us some discomfort?