The Shocking Plot Twist of Christmas
Even if you are not a Christian, or even a fan of the Bible, there’s something really intriguing about the way God writes his story. Even if you view the Bible strictly as literature, the shocking twists and turns of the narrative are good stuff. The Bible’s God rarely, if ever, does stuff the way we, the readers– or even his most vocal fans– would expect or even like.
But even my atheist friends are so familiar with the Bible’s shocking twists and Serling-esque turns that we can barely appreciate them. We no longer gasp when we get to the part where God’s prophet, Jonah, first runs away from God’s command, then ends up tossed into the stormy sea. Unlike Jonah, who was surely convinced that the waves were closing over his head for the last time, we know how the story turns out. It isn’t shocking to us anymore.
But some of the twists are worth looking at in a new light. If only to remind us of just the kind of being the God of the Bible claims he is.
With that in mind, bear with me for a little holiday tale. Grab some eggnog, put your feet up by the fire, and load some cherry blend into your pipe. We’ll set this little holiday tale in a Pride and Prejudice sort of timeframe. That makes it instantly classic, right? You’ve probably read books like that, or seen movies in that setting, or– like me– been forced to sit through such things. Even if you haven’t, you can probably picture it, right?
A huge stone house, its windows glowing yellow against the falling snow of a winter night. Inside, a dozen immaculately dressed people in powdered wigs and petticoats, coattails and watchchains, all sit around a long, lavishly set table. Servants bustle in and out, adding platters, refilling goblets. Few of the lords and ladies around the table have any clue of the hive of activity down in the kitchens: the scullery maids endlessly scrubbing, the cooks sweating over (and occasionally into) boiling pots on wooden stoves. No, only one thing occupies the minds of the fancy men and women of this land.
They are expecting a special guest. And not just any guest, mind you. A representative of the King himself. His coming has been expected for months and years, and tonight is the night he finally arrives.
The fancy lords and ladies are all intently discussing just how he will arrive. He is the king’s man, after all– some even say he is the King himself, or the King’s son. Surely, some argue, his arrival will be heralded for miles in advance. A string of carriages two hundred yards long will precede him, along with a trumpet fanfare to wake the entire countryside.
Others insist that he would not travel by carriage at all. They claim that he will arrive by ship, that soon enough the river behind the manor house will be lit from shore to shore with the regal glow of the pride of the royal navy, decked with banners and announcing its arrival with a fifty gun salute.
The lord of the manor, however, claims that the king’s man will be daring and subtle. He will travel alone, but on the fastest, sleekest horse in the king’s stable, decked with a golden shield and a silver sword, a noble knight, prepared to single-handedly advance the King’s cause against the rabble of malcontents, ruffians and drunkards.
They argue about this into the night as the fire burns low and the servants grow weary. Finally, with some alarm, they realize that it’s midnight. Where is the King’s man?
They stand and approach the windows, peering out into the snowy night. Nothing is to be seen but blue distance and spotless drifts. Well, almost spotless.
One of the ladies spies a single set of footprints tracked across the yard. The tracks bypass the front door and angle around the side of the house.
The fancy lords and ladies begin to explore the house in great confusion, seeking any sign of the maker of the mysterious footprints.
Eventually, they barge into the depths of the scullery. The scullery maid jumps up at the sight of them, guilty for resting when there is so much work to do. And yet, the work is being done.
A man stands at the sink, the sleeves of his rough shirt rolled up, his arms elbow deep in grey wash water, working away. His boots are still dripping snowmelt onto the stone floor.
This man– somehow, this commoner, elbow deep in dirty dishes, wearing a rough shirt and flannel pants– this plain working man… is the king’s representative. Possibly– incredible as it seems– the King himself.
That is the shocking, unexpected twist of the birth of Jesus. Whether you call it fiction or history, it’s a good one, isn’t it? Who expected the promised messiah, the man of God, to appear in a barn, entering the world as the seemingly illegitimate son of a poor teenage girl and her new, somewhat reluctant husband, making his first squalls from a food trough still half-full of dirty hay.
Absolutely nobody, that’s who.
If anything illustrates the nature of the Bible’s God– that he is for everyone, that he likes to knock the proud onto their butts sometimes, and that most of all, he likes a good, gripping, surprising story, this is it.
But in the moment, for Mary and Joseph, and for all those clueless prophets who didn’t even know the prophecy had come true– and in a way that most of them would find supremely disappointing– while God’s plot twist was first happening and no one knew what was going to happen next, it had to have been pretty disheartening.
“Nowhere near as good as the graphic novel.”
It’s a good thing– for me, at least– to think about right now. It’s a good thing to remember that, as dark, depressing, and disheartening as the ongoing story of this world can be, the story isn’t over yet. We don’t know the ending. And if you believe in God– if you believe he is the writer of stories like the birth of Jesus– then it’s good to remember that he is surely the best, the very best, storyteller of them all. The ending, when we get to the final page, will be, as they say, a good one. Somehow, it’ll be worth it.
And if you don’t believe in God, forgive my optimism. And in the words of Coffee With Jesus, “Try to have a merry Christmas anyway.”