It’s that time of year when those of us who know that there are treasures that surpass what the secular world has to offer, turn our attention to Advent preparation in anticipation of a celebration of Christmas. And part of that getting-ready involves diving into the accounts of the birth of Jesus.
Why are we so captivated by the stories of the Nativity? As evident in the first recorded accounts of the birth of Christ in St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s Gospels, this is an attention-grabbing chronicle that contains many of the hallmarks of good storytelling.
Bobette Buster, who teaches storytelling to university students, was quoted in an article that appeared in The Atlantic. Of the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus, she says, “This story has everything—audacity, wonder, awe, journey, vulnerability, courage, tragedy—and they all collide in a single narrative.”
An enthralling tale must have strong dramatic content. Such is the case with the Nativity story. There’s an urgency for the road-weary couple to seek lodging for the pregnant woman whose time is at hand. The long, arduous journey to Bethlehem, only to be denied a place to stay delivers appropriate tension.
Memorable characters are critical to the presentation of a gripping narrative. Not only do we have the virtuous heroine and hero, Mary and Joseph, we have the wicked antagonist Herod, hell-bent to destroy any threat to his throne. Then there are the supernatural angels, the lowly shepherds, the over-burdened innkeeper, and the wealthy and learned Wise Men.
While the main plot revolves around the birth of Jesus, the subplots include angels delivering messages to the shepherds in the fields and to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee to Egypt with the Babe and his mother. Another subplot follows the Magi, who have traveled for so long and so far to meet the King of Kings and who are wise enough to avoid returning to Herod with the Child’s location.
Then there are the poorest of the poor, the marginalized shepherds, who heed the angels’ proclamation and demonstrate to us the course of action we all should take: get to the manger, pronto!
And of course, there’s the pathos of the Slaughter of the Innocents that breaks our hearts and causes us to yearn more fervently for the escape of the Holy Family.
The Nativity story is a beautiful and touching account of family unity, love, and sacrifice that captures the hearts of children in a special way. Perhaps that is why kids so love The Little Drummer Boy, the torch-bearing Jeanette Isabella, or the anthropomorphized ox, donkey, mouse, or spider that has found its way into the telling of various versions of the Nativity story. It gives children a way to imagine themselves there!
St. Ignatius of Loyola developed a method of contemplation that speaks to what children experience when they hear stories. Ignatius was convinced that God can use our imagination to converse with us.
Jesuit Fr. Kevin O’Brien, in his book The Ignatian Adventure, explains how readers or listeners can “accompany Jesus through his life by imagining scenes from the Gospel stories,” and for kids, the Nativity story is a great place to begin.
“Let the events of Jesus’ life be present to you right now,” Fr. O’Brien instructs those who wish to use imagination to draw closer to the Lord. “Visualize the event as if you were making a movie. Pay attention to the details: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the event. Lose yourself in the story; don’t worry if your imagination is running too wild. At some point, place yourself in the scene.”
Children are expert at letting their imaginations guide them. “I’m the good soldier. You’re the bad guy,” a child might say, brandishing a foam sword. “I’m the doctor and you’re the sick baby,” another might instruct as imaginary medicine is administered.
“When children pretend, they’re using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality. A stick can be a magic wand. A sock can be a puppet. A small child can be a superhero,” Fred Rogers said.
And when a child hears a story of Jesus’ life, they can picture themselves there—perhaps as a shepherd who comes to adore, or as a passer-by who hearkens to the cry of the newborn Babe.
“What would I have done if I had been there?” a child might ask himself. Would he have somehow found room in the inn for Mary and Joseph? Would she have brought the couple food and water? Would those children have posted themselves outside the stable as guards against whatever evil Herod sent to Bethlehem?
By encouraging children to enter into the life of Jesus through stories, adults are providing a way for little ones to begin developing a relationship with the Lord. “What one loves in childhood stays in the heart forever,” says author Mary Jo Putney. And what is the pinnacle of love for kids, and for adults, but Jesus Christ?
Our Lord knew the power of putting one’s imagination to work. As Master Storyteller, he delivered his parables, inviting his listeners to picture themselves as the prodigal son (or his father or older brother), as the rich young man challenged to give up everything, or as the farmhand who is hired in the first hour of the day and is paid the same as the laborer who came to the field for the last hour of work.
Through story, we learn about the characters portrayed, but perhaps even more importantly, we learn about ourselves.
An effective story demands a knockout ending, and the Nativity story provides just that, for what could be more impactful than the realization that everyone present in the scene, whether there in real time as it happened or through imagination millennia later, has witnessed the grace of God made Man through the birth of a helpless Infant in a backwater Judean town?
“The best stories endure through the ages,” Buster says, “and in the end, that’s how you know if it is really a great story or not.”
After 2,000 years of retelling, it’s a pretty fair bet that the account of the Nativity is an excellent tale . . . and a real one to boot. . . that will last into eternity, for it’s not only a good story, it’s part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.