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The core story of the nativity is still relevant today

Regardless of the nativity’s accuracy, the core of the story still happens today.


We all know the Christmas story. 


I spent one Christmas working with children in the care of the state. I travelled across town to work with a boy whose family had fled genocide. After arriving in Australia, the family unit broke down, and the boy was separated from his siblings. Another carer and I stayed the night with the children, reuniting the siblings for Christmas Eve. 


After dinner, we walked the brothers and sisters through the streets to see the lights of the neighbouring houses. It was their first Christmas together in years, bathed in the colours of the flashing plastic decorations. One of the children stopped and pointed at a house, recognising a picture of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, the rising star, the angel, the child in the stable – lit up in the front window. They knew the nativity. 


After the children were in bed and the presents tucked beneath the tree, I found a mattress in a spare room with a couch cushion and a spare sheet. I lay in the dark the night before Christmas and thought of that boy, the violence he and his family had fled, and their homelessness, and I remembered what that child had said when they saw the house with the nativity. 


That’s the Christmas story


The children recognised the nativity. They had a church background with some memory of the story – Joseph and a pregnant Mary must leave their home and are unable to find somewhere to stay, Mary delivering the child in a stable. The family are visited by shepherds and wise men and are warned of a coming violence, soon to seek refuge in a foreign land. I grew up with this story, too, the image a decoration in Christmas windows, but I often get caught up on the nativity when I see it. The plastic decorations seem cheap, inaccurate. 

“The challenge for us is to point out where we see that story now”

The nativity accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, this his mother was Mary, and that Joseph was not his biological father. The two gospels differ from there, however, with the journey to Bethlehem, the angels, and visiting shepherds coming from the gospel of Luke, and the star, the wise men and fleeing to Egypt coming from Matthew. The family trees in either gospel differ, the timelines don’t always match, and there isn’t a stable in either account. We conflate the details, and when I see a nativity with the shepherds, the wise men, and the child in the stable, I often think, “That didn’t really happen like that.” 


It surprised me, at first, that these children who had fled genocide and homelessness would recognise the nativity. It didn’t matter to them if the decoration was accurate or historical, they knew the story. It’s perhaps easy to get distracted by the plastic decorations, the star, the angels and the stable and miss what’s really at the heart of the nativity: a vulnerable child now homeless, a refugee family, visited by strangers. I wondered if what mattered to them in that story was that picture of the vulnerable child and the picture of safety. 


I woke on Christmas Day, watched the boy open presents alongside his siblings, and then travelled home. The children had recognised the Christmas story the night before, but I could recognise it in them, too. We had acted out our own nativity on that Christmas Eve, and while I am unsure if there had been a rising star or an angel present, I had played the role of a visiting stranger (though I suspect I’d do a better sheep herder than wise man). 


We all know the Christmas story, and while the details of the nativity didn’t really happen like that, the core of the story still happens today. The challenge for us is to point out where we see that story now, not to be distracted by the decorations but to recognise the nativity in the lived experience of the vulnerable and ask: where are the homeless now? Do we care for refugee families? Who is fleeing violence today? Where is the Christmas story happening this December? 


Which role do we play? 







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