Tweaking the Formula of a Christmas Love Story
A Christmas Eve sermon on Luke 2:1-14
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash.]
Throughout the season of Advent, our community has been pondering the theme of Holy Disruption,
In worship, reflections, and learning activities we have explored the ways in which we can recognize God’s pattern of breaking into the status quo, turning things upside down, surprising our expectations, and bringing about changes that we don’t expect, but desperately need.
It has been a season of pushing past our comfort zone to embrace God’s unsettling ways of working in the world.
And so, it might surprise you to hear that tonight’s sermon has been inspired by Hallmark Christmas Movies…
Possibly the most formulaic form of mass entertainment imaginable.
My apologies if any of you are enthusiastic Hallmark Christmas Movie fans – I don’t mean to insult your tastes… I can recognize the comfort factor in the soft, predictable, happy-ending storylines complete with winter wonderland snow scenes and an adorable child and/or dog. What’s not to love?!
But I am also aware that at least part of the appeal in these shows is that we know what to expect, right? We are not going to get blindsided by a plot twist that makes us re-think our perspective on anything.
Nevertheless, a part of the expected Hallmark formula is disruption, isn’t it…
The big-city protagonist thinks they are perfectly happy in their high-paced, high-stress lifestyle up until a sudden exposure to the charms of small-town life (and love-interest) make them re-think everything.
It might not be a HOLY disruption, but disruption is crucial to the standard plot.
And, as it happens, I think that the whole Hallmark formula (with one notable exception, which I will get to later) is actually a useful lens to help us examine the Christmas story.
So, what are the pieces of the formula that apply to the Bethlehem narrative?
Well, to start there is the setting in Bethlehem, Joseph’s “hometown” so to speak, which he and Mary have to return to because of the census.
An unwelcome trip back home is usually the initial plot point that jump-starts a Hallmark movie, right?
The change of scene disrupts the numbing pattern that has our main character stuck in an outwardly successful but inwardly meaningless lifestyle and sets the stage for the realization that they have been valuing the wrong things.
Of course, in the Christmas story the move isn’t from a big city to a small town… rather the opposite if anything… but that’s only in the case of Joseph and Mary, and they are supporting characters in this plot.
Jesus, the main character, is very definitely moving from a place of status and power to a much more humble context.
I mean… if the choir of heavenly angels is anything to judge by, the courts of heaven are quite a bit more impressive than a dirty animal stall in Bethlehem, even if it is in the City of David.
And this is a detail of the narrative that has real significance.
The shifted context is a trope in Hallmark movies because that kind of shift DOES have a profound impact.
The things we are exposed to, the experiences we have in the day-to-day moments of our lives shape our perspectives more deeply than we are usually aware of.
And, much as I believe that God the Creator is omniscient, there is a difference between “knowing” and “experiencing.”
God KNOWS all the truths of the universe… how the world came into being, and what an electron actually looks like, and what happens inside a black hole.
But it wasn’t until Mary held her newborn baby in her arms that God knew what it feels like to be embraced by a mother’s love.
And it wasn’t until the first pangs of hunger hit that God knew what it feels like to be dependent on others to meet your immediate, physical needs.
It wasn’t until Jesus abandoned the heavenly realm of glory to humble himself and experience life in all the fragility and immediacy of a human infant that God knew what it is like to be us.
It was the shift in context that gave God a profoundly new perspective… a new way of relating to us.
It is not only the trip to a humble hometown, of course, that moves along the stereotypical Hallmark plot (or our Christmas story). There must also be some looming crisis to amp up the tension and necessitate our hero to take an uncharacteristic action.
We have already gotten some preliminary anxious moments in the lead-up to Christmas, what with the unexpected pregnancy, but tonight’s story rachets up the crisis again.
Mary goes into labor.
It’s her first baby, and she is far from the female family members who would have been the expected assistants for her childbirth.
She only has her young, inexperienced husband to help her, and then the real crisis: there is no private space for them.
They are far from home.
The town is overcrowded with throngs of distant relatives forced by government decree to uproot themselves for counting and taxing purposes.
Whatever hospitality the local people would have liked to share, resource limitations are real and non-negotiable.
The only private place is a stable, a space designed for animals, not for the vulnerable and intimate experience of giving birth.
As disorienting, behavior-altering crises go, this fits the requirements of the Halmark formula… except for the one major difference that we find in THIS particular Christmas story:
According to the formula, the crisis forces the status-conscious main, to undergo a re-evaluation of what they truly value in order to take an action that will change their life and the town for the better.
But in the original Christmas story it is not Jesus who is called upon to undergo a change of heart… it is us, humanity, the people he came to be with.
Although the decision to be born as a humble baby represents a dramatic change of context for the Son of God, it is not a change of character.
Rather, it is the clearest expression humanity has yet known of what his character truly is.
In the birth story of Jesus, WE are the ones who have the scales fall from our eyes so that we can finally see the truth about God…
about the extremes God will go to to reach out to us, to bridge the gap ripped by sin and distrust when humanity decided we wanted to be our own gods.
Although Jesus is the one in the Christmas story to make the trip from the metaphorical halls of status and power to the humble hometown, we – the residents of this unimpressive home – are the ones who are challenged to let go of our pride, re-think our assumptions, and to decide what truly matters to us.
Do we want to hold onto our defiant self-sufficiency, which tells us that we don’t need God and can manage very well on our own, thank you very much?
Or will we open our hearts to the God who is willing to give up power, and comfort, and heavenly perfection, in order to share our fragile human lives on an intimate level?
Will we abandon pride for love?
If we will, then we have the chance to complete tonight’s Christmas story according to the Hallmark formula: by making it a story of ultimately REQUITED love.
Love is really the whole point of every iteration of the holiday move formula.
And not only because love makes us feel good, but because love is ultimately the point of Christmas.
Not romantic love, in this case, but rather the deepest and most life-changing love there is: the love that God offers us by leaving everything behind to be with us.
Our Christmas story doesn’t end with a kiss under the mistletoe, or out in a magical snowfall.
But I think we have an even better ending:
We get a choir of angels singing God’s love song to us and inviting us to join our voices in the song as a way of saying: “We love you, too, Jesus.”
Thanks be to God.