While the Christmas story is one we all know very well, it may seem difficult to connect this 2,000-year-old story to our modern culture. Dan Darling’s new book The Characters of Christmas aims to fix this by providing parallels from the Christmas characters we all know to today’s culture. From Mary to Herod to the innkeeper, the characters from our Christmas story can teach us much about ourselves, and our God.
Darling is the Vice President of Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he reads excerpts from his newest book on this special episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.
“As we celebrate Advent this season, and as we examine all the characters of Christmas, there is none so unlikely to be at the center of this divine story as Mary. […] We often think God works through extreme giftedness, or among those who are wealthy and well connected, but the Christmas story reminds us that God moves in and among those whom society most often leaves behind, that the thread of redemption woven throughout scripture winds its way through a lot of small towns and seemingly little lives.”
“Before we judge [the innkeeper], we should examine our own hearts this Christmas. We too are often disrupted by Jesus. We are religious up until the point it costs us something. […] But Jesus invades our lives and disrupts them. He asks us to leave our nets and follow. He asks us to drop our ambitions and join his mission.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear more from Dan Darling about how we can relate the Christmas story to our modern lives.
TRACI GRIGGS: Welcome to Family Policy Matters, a radio show and podcast from the North Carolina Family Policy Council. I’m Traci DeVette Griggs, Director of Communications at NC Family. As part of the celebration of Jesus’s birth, we’re going to take a break from our normal public policy topics to bring you some readings from the author of a book entitled, The Characters of Christmas by Dan Darling. Dan has played a special role here at NC Family this year. His writing inspired our end-of-year theme that you’ve heard so much about, “Behind Every Issue Is A Person,” which stems from a body of work surrounding his earlier book, The Dignity Revolution. In The Characters of Christmas, Dan Darling helps us take a fresh look at this age-old story, mostly by providing parallels from today’s culture in a very informal way, helping us understand what the characters might have been feeling and placing us squarely in their shoes.
Dan begins by reading an excerpt from the chapter on Zechariah and Elizabeth. We find Zechariah right after he has questioned the word of an angel who told him that his wife, who was well past childbearing age, would soon have a so.
DAN DARLING: God loves to hear our doubts, to field our questions and to hear our anguished cries. But it is disbelief that is a sin, our unwillingness to trust that God can do the impossible. And so Zechariah’s punishment was to be struck mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. And in a way this affliction was less of a punishment and more of a gift from God. To not speak would be to sit in silence before God, to quiet the chattering of the soul and the noise of his circumstances. In a way, this is a work God seeks to do in the heart of all of us. Christmas is a good time to practice silence, to sit and listen to the voice of God, to put away the devices and the inputs that so often keep us from faith. A priest who often spoke words of blessing on God’s people would be silenced and would emerge with a renewed faith in the possibility of God’s promise. Sometimes God has to quiet us so we can hear him. Sometimes we have to be still so we can see him move. Sometimes our words and our busyness get in the way of our faith; they form a cynical shell around our hearts.
TRACI GRIGGS: Next, let’s take a look at Mary, who has just received her own surprising news.
DAN DARLING: Gabriel didn’t choose to make this announcement to Herod’s daughter or a member of elite Jewish society, but to a poor, illiterate, unimportant Jewish girl in Nazareth named Mary. As we celebrate Advent this season, and as we examine all the characters of Christmas, there is none so unlikely to be at the center of this divine story as Mary. Mary was not looking for prominence. She was like every other Jewish peasant girl in Nazareth, simply living out an ordinary life in an ordinary town with unassuming dreams. And yet it is Mary who not only received the first announcement of the Christ child, but who is chosen by God to bear the Son of God. This tells us something about Mary, her simple faith and her willingness to say, “Yes” to God. But it tells us more about Mary’s God. We often think God works through extreme giftedness, or among those who are wealthy and well connected, but the Christmas story reminds us that God moves in and among those whom society most often leaves behind, that the thread of redemption woven throughout scripture winds its way through a lot of small towns and seemingly little lives. Nobody knew Mary’s name—nobody but God of course—and God knows your name. This is what it means, that God is Emmanuel. He visits the lowly of station and lowly of heart. He dwells among the broken and the contrite, to quote the hymn writer Charles Wesley, “Jesus has come to earth to taste our sadness, He whose glories know no end.”
TRACI GRIGGS: Our next character in this Christmas story is the innkeeper.
DAN DARLING: We are tempted with the hindsight of 20 centuries to judge. Could the innkeeper not have found better accommodations for Jesus? Could he not have given up his own bed for a pregnant woman? But before we judge, we should examine our own hearts this Christmas. We too are often disrupted by Jesus. We are religious up until the point it costs us something. We want a Jesus who forms himself around our priorities and who can be sprinkled on top of our agendas. But Jesus invades our lives and disrupts them. He asks us to leave our nets and follow. He asks us to drop our ambitions and join his mission. He asks us to leave behind our idols and worship him with devotion. While we were yet sinners, while we were apathetic, ignorant, and unfazed, Jesus came for us. This is the Jesus who knocks.
TRACI GRIGGS: Now let’s hear about the wise men. Why were they chosen to be among the first to recognize and worship the child Jesus?
DAN DARLING: While most of Israel slept in spiritual lethargy, and those who knew the scriptures—the scribes and the chief priests—were more fearful of Herod than God, these men had the faith to worship the one who deserved worship, Jesus. The presence of these men from the East, outsiders, Gentiles, is a confirmation of God’s promise to send a Messiah who would not only be the King of the Jews, but a Messiah for the nations. Jesus’s kingdom is a kingdom not just for insiders, but for outsiders. In fact, many insiders, those who were closest to Jesus, were most resistant to his message, and so it often is today. Those who are most churched are often those who are so blinded by self-righteousness that they cannot see, we cannot see the gospel. And so it is often those who seem so far from God, whom God by his spirit is drawing.
TRACI GRIGGS: The chapter entitled “Herod, the Monster of Christmas,” begins by recounting the more modern villains of Christmas: Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, The Grinch who stole Christmas, and Scrooge in The Christmas Carol.
DAN DARLING: The original Christmas story has its own monster, though his cruelties are far from cute. Herod is a legitimate villain, which is why he’s not usually included in many Christmas stories. I don’t think any nativity sets include this guy, but Herod figures very prominently in the Christmas story. To ignore him is to not only ignore the time into which Jesus was born, but to miss an important thread in God’s grand plan of redemption. Underneath the warm glow of our Christmases is a dark threat of violence, signs of a cosmic war against all that is good. Christmas then began long before that starry night in Bethlehem; it began in eternity, in the counsels of the Trinity as God planned to redeem the world from sin. This would involve a long and bloody struggle between the offspring of Satan and the seed of the woman. We see this played out on the pages of the Old Testament, where page after page we find seemingly parallel tracks of good and evil. So now you know that when we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ, and it says in Matthew 2:1 that, “Jesus was born in the days of Herod,” you know he is writing this narrative as a continuation of what had come before. For Jesus to be born in these days of Herod might have been the worst possible time for a new King of Israel to be born, but Matthew is framing his book not as a tidy biography of Jesus, but as the clash of kingdoms.
TRACI GRIGGS: The next characters that we visit in our reading by Dan Darling through his book The Characters of Christmas are Simeon and Anna. The two were quoted, “Clinging to a distant promise and beseeching God to bestow upon the earth that long-promised Messiah.”
DAN DARLING: This is the central message of Christmas. No doubt today, as you read this, you are involved in the warmth and busyness of another December. But as much as we enjoy the season, let us remember that we set aside time as believers, not merely to gather with family or sip warm beverages, but to acknowledge the central truth of Christianity. Jesus has come to save us from our sins. This Jesus, Simeon knew, wasn’t just an ordinary baby. He may not have understood exactly how it would all play out, nor did he fully grasp the mystery of God becoming human, neither do we. But Simeon knew enough to know that Jesus would not only be the long-awaited Messiah every Jewish person longed to see; He would be a light for the Gentiles. This is repeated often in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s birth and Mary’s song, in Zechariah’s praise and the words of the angel to Joseph. Jesus was and is a Savior for the entire world.
It’s important for us to understand this truth. Sometimes we are tempted to think Jesus came only to save people who look like us, but we are told from the promise to Abraham in Genesis, through the words of the prophets, and on into the Gospel narratives, and onto the letters of Paul and into John’s vision in Revelation, that the Kingdom of God is made up of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. And let’s not forget the great cost of our salvation. This day in the temple was a day of celebration and dedication, but Simeon’s words were not at all pleasant for Mary to hear, especially his proclamation that a sword will pierce her. This is not what new mothers exactly want to hear about their motherhood, but Simeon knew that the promise carried joy and pain, blessing and anguish. The baby whom Simeon held, who cooed and kicked and delighted his young parents, would one day endure the unjust trial motivated by bloodthirsty crowds. The very people He formed would laugh at His cries of pain. The world He came to save would send Him to His death. Most of all, the Father with whom He communed in all of eternity would see His son not as the pure and spotless lamb, but as the embodiment of all the sin and anguish of a rebellious human race.
But Mary, like all of those who believe, could find hope that the baby she held would not only pay for the sins of those who nailed Him to the cross, but would defeat death in his resurrection. Her son would endure all of this to reconcile sinners like herself, like Simeon, like you and me, to God. Jesus’s future agony would be our salvation and God’s glory. Perhaps this is a dreary day for you when you are not feeling all that Christmas feels. Maybe you are lonely and discouraged, perhaps you’ve been rejected, but know this: if you are in Christ, God leveraged the entire universe to shout to you his message of love and draw you to Himself.
TRACI GRIGGS: We have been listening to excerpts from the book The Characters of Christmas, read by the author Dan Darling. As we wrap up 2019, I’d like to send a shout-out to our radio show crew: Brittany Farrell, Eileen Brown, and our editor and general get-it-all-done person, Calley Mangum. Thank you all for your work!
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Thanks again for joining us on Family Policy Matters.
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