This week is our Sunday school Christmas program. We will be telling a story based on the Little Drummer Boy and reading Tomie de Paola’s telling of The Legend of the Poinsettia. Because we are a people of the Word even when we’re telling other stories, we’re inviting Luke 2:8-15 into the conversation.

This is deliberately less than a complete story. Luke 2 begins with the verses that set Jesus’ birth against the historical backdrop of an imperial census, which also provides a convenient literary device for transporting Joseph and his fiancee Mary from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth. (By contrast, Matthew’s account seems to place the couple in Bethlehem from the beginning and relocates them to Nazareth later on.) There was no room at the Super 8, so Jesus was born in the parking garage. That’s when we cut away to this story, with the shepherds out in the field. We end just after they decide to go see what’s going on in Bethlehem, because then our Little Drummer Boy story is set in that scene.

What’s going on here?

Luke is a careful first-century historian. His story fits together precisely, including the names and dates of the people involved in the census. He’s aiming for credibility and making a theological point at the same time: this is a historic event, both in the sense that it really took place and in the sense that it changed the world.

It matters that Joseph is a descendant of David, a resident of Nazareth, and a visitor in Bethlehem when Jesus is born. All these details help fulfill Old Testament prophecies, details of which you can find in Matthew’s birth narrative – especially if you have a Bible with cross-references. I suspect that Mary’s lineage matters as well. Joseph belonged to the line of the great king; Mary, evidently, descends from the priestly family of Aaron and the Levites (see chapter 1). The anticipated Messiah was expected to be a priestly king who would restore the people of Israel. However, priests and kings belonged to different tribes. It took this kind of inter-tribal marriage (which was probably common by this time) to place someone in both lines. Does it matter that Joseph was Jesus’ supposed/adoptive father, rather than his father by birth? You can decide.

So what?

I like the way this works out, reading this passage as a way of jumping off to a different set of stories. That strikes me as an approach Luke would agree with. His characters are all the time responding to God’s presence in the Holy Spirit by singing, praying, and preaching. We get to respond to the Christmas story by trying to find ourselves in these legends. Non-biblical legends are perhaps easier to find ourselves in, because then we don’t have to decide whether to be Joseph, Mary, or Shepherd #8.

The church has long included two of Luke’s hymns from chapter 1 as part of the daily prayer liturgy. In the morning, the Song of Zechariah looks forward to the presence of God that may come into the world that day. In the evening, the Song of Mary rejoices in the ways we may have borne God’s presence throughout the day. We join with these characters in paying attention to the specific ways God has come to dwell in our lives by the Holy Spirit. The story of God’s coming in Christ plays back and forth with the stories we live, until it gets difficult to tell which story is which.

How does your story bear the presence of God? Where do you hear the invitation to go and celebrate the good news?

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