Bishop Paul’s letter

Rev Paul Smith
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand

Nativity plays have been part of our Christian communities for centuries, as we annually dramatise the Christmas gospel with a simple retelling of the story of the manger. This tradition of retelling shows a deep appreciation of the human soul and of God’s gracious heart towards humankind.

We human beings need story. We tell stories. We watch stories on big and small screens, sometimes ‘bingeing’ on them. We read stories to our children from an early age. We create stories. When someone has died, we gather to tell their story. We are stories.

A master storyteller and faithful Christian, J.R.R. Tolkien has become famous in our modern era, through blockbuster movies based on his stories in the Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien understood the significance of story and had studied the history of northern European medieval storytelling, particularly in the colourful Viking sagas. Tolkien wrote how a story can capture your breath, lift the heart, or even give a person a glimpse of joy. Stories can transform us in our deepest soul.

Central to all that Tolkein cherished and celebrated about story, was the greatest story of all. As a Christian, throughout his life in England, he knew the story of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. God enters our world in a Bethlehem stable with angels and shepherds, through a young woman who has no proper place to deliver her baby.

This one born in the manger grows to adulthood and takes on sin, death and the power of the Devil for us. At the point in his story, when he dies on Calvary’s mountain, when even his followers despair, Jesus rises from the grave. These are great turning points in the story of Jesus Christ, which change human history and change us forever.

There were those shepherds who watched their flocks at night, outside of Bethlehem who were ushered into this story, when the angelic proclamation declared to them, that the Saviour had been born, who is Christ the Lord. These farmhands were so transformed by this turning point in history and in their own lives, that they left their flocks and hurried, in the dark with all its hazards and uncertainties, to see for themselves, ‘this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us’. Then, when they had seen for themselves the Lord of the manger, they ‘made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them’. They told the story.

And today, we have the wonderful tradition of nativity plays, to tell the story to each new generation. This is the story of God’s gracious heart for the people of the world.

May every carol you hear played in coming weeks, be a reminder to join with the shepherds in telling the story, in the face of uncertainties and amid all kinds of opposition.

Then on the festival of Christmas Day, we will gather to hear the story and to personally receive this story continued. The one enfleshed and found in the manger declares himself fully present in the holy meal of bread and wine where we will receive grace upon grace.

English Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote this Christmas good news into a profound poem from 1954, simply entitled, ‘Christmas’:

‘And is it true, this most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

‘And is it true? For if it is, no loving fingers tying strings Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

‘No love that in a family dwells, no carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine?’

In Christ,

Lord Jesus, we belong to you,
you live in us, we live in you;
we live and work for you –
because we bear your name.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login and read this article.
Not a subscriber? Click here to receive stories & upcoming issues in full