It is the season for prequels and sequels. Mary Poppins is the big sequel this year. It’s the first year since 2012 that there hasn’t been a hobbit or a stormtrooper on the big screen. Fans will have to wait until next Christmas for Star Wars: Episode IX.
I watched the first Star Wars—later retitled as Episode IV: A New Hope—when it came out in 1977. I might not have seen it at all had our dorm’s resident adviser not insisted I go. He said, “Looper, you’ve got to see this movie. There’s a guy in it that looks exactly like you. Exactly.”
“Really?” I asked.
“You’ll know him when you see him. His name is Chewy.”
The movie was fun and my friends and I saw the resemblance with my doppelganger, but I didn’t realize at the time that the movie fit into a larger narrative. It had a backstory—a prequel—and would have a fore-story—a sequel.
Christmas is like that. It is intriguing and satisfying: the tale of an unwed mother and an ostracized family, an angelic messenger, and noble shepherds. We can enjoy it without knowing the rest of the story—or even that there is a rest of the story. We can enjoy it, but we won’t grasp its importance until we understand how Christmas fits into the larger narrative.
Christmas has a prequel and a sequel, and it only makes sense within the context of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. What makes this story different from others is that we are not merely viewers; we are participants. The story is interactive: We have a role and the story adapts itself to how we play it.
The origin story of Christmas
What is the prequel to the Christmas story? To relate it in any detail would take quite a while—and readers can find it in the Old Testament—but here is a summary. The backstory is that a super-intelligence created carbon-based, physical-spiritual hybrid beings and placed them on a planet—our planet, as it turns out. The Creator designed these beings to be a race of godlike and loving protectors and rulers of creation.
Eugene Peterson paraphrased this part of the prequel this way: “God spoke: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature. So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.’ God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them. ‘Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.’”
Unlike other creatures he designed, the Creator engineered humans with a high degree of autonomy: They can make choices, formulate plans, and carry them out, as they see fit. This autonomy was a key part of the design. Humans were the glory of creation.
But as the story progresses, the nascent humans are co-opted by a dark power and drawn away from their Creator with disastrous results. The spiritual part of humans, who were designed as spiritual-physical hybrids, undergoes catastrophic failure. Without the spiritual component, humans become like other animals, only more intelligent. Chaos ensues, unleashed by injustice, greed, and hatred.
The Creator, though, does not give up hope for his human creatures. He communicates with those capable of interacting with him. There is no undoing the damage done by human rebellion, no going back, but the Creator plans to carry humanity forward. He immediately sets in motion a plan to right what has gone wrong and restore humanity’s spiritual life. He begins shaping a millennia-long lineage chain among his human creatures.
Within that lineage, he promotes a particular culture, and superintends a specific genetic line. He does this over a period of thousands of years. He plans to enter humanity himself through the line he has prepared, in order to free humanity from the rebellion and restore its damaged spiritual function. That’s the metanarrative into which Christmas fits.
A dramatic middle chapter
Once we are aware of the prequel, it becomes clear that Christmas is not a stand-alone story about the birth of a beautiful child under trying circumstances. It is the story of a rescue mission, an invasion. It is a bittersweet story because when the Creator entered his creation through the line he had spent thousands of years preparing, his own creatures did not know him.
So, John in his gospel writes, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). Not only did they not recognize him, they did not accept him: “He came to that which was his own,” the line and the people he had been preparing for millennia, “but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).
Of course, in the tale we call the Christmas story, there is all kinds of excitement. There is a tyrannical ruler who serves an empire that is under the sway of the original dark power. As soon as the tyrant becomes aware that the empire has been infiltrated, he makes an attempt on the Creator’s life. There are bad guys aplenty in this story, but there are also friends and unexpected allies. There are covert messages. There is a dramatic escape.
But here is the exciting thing about Christmas: It is the middle of the story, not the beginning nor the end. “It occurs at the … climactic point of redemptive history,” says Larry R. Helyer, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Taylor University. “The war was far from over but the decisive battle had been won when God entered the fray in the person of his eternal Son.”
The Creator’s strategy is full of surprises. Rather than going to war against the rebels, as one might expect, he goes to war for them. He could have overwhelmed them with his vast power in a campaign of shock and awe, intimidated them with threats of punishment, or appealed to them on the basis of their greed or selfishness—the same old story of the ways of power in the world. But he did none of those things. His sights were set on something more radical than conformity to a set of rules: He was out to change humanity from the inside.
To that end, the Creator lived among humans as a human, modeling for them the life he makes possible and instructing them in how to live it. But they needed more than instruction. They needed the kind of life they had lost and didn’t even know was missing. To make that possible, the creator had to give his life on their behalf. He did this by dying and returning to life. That is the climax of the story, which is narrated in the New Testament Gospels.
The Christmas sequel is closer than you think
This is the climax but it is not the end of the story, which continued on, as chronicled in The Acts of the Apostles. Helyer points out that Christmas, like other biblical stories, is a sub-narrative, which must be seen in its overall context. To isolate it from the grand narrative is to compromise its relevance: “The Christmas story is in danger of becoming a ‘story’ like other stories,” Helyer says, “unless it is constantly seen as a turning point in The Story.” Only by constantly holding this truth before us can we “help the new generation to know The Story and thus their story.”
The story is still going on and still being chronicled. John wrote in Revelation: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev. 20:12) And what’s recorded there will no doubt include the heroics and bravery and extraordinary faith of God’s people in this generation. We are a part of the story now and have a role to play in it.
We undergo a paradigm shift when we realize that the story that was set in Bethlehem is continuing now in Cleveland and Dakar and Mumbai, only at a different point in the story-line. If we isolate Christmas from its prequels and sequels, the people in the story lose their identity as our fellow-disciples. They cease to be like us and therefore cease to be examples to us. They become extras, cameos and role-players. As Lynn Cohick, provost at Denver Seminary, put it, “In pulling the Christmas story from the narrative, we lose Mary as a prophetic voice and a disciple we can follow and emulate.”
The Christmas story may be beautiful in isolation from its larger narrative, but it ceases to be relevant. As Cohick goes on to say, “If you rip Christmas out of the story … you don’t really appreciate how you should behave here and now in the Kingdom of God.” When Christmas is lifted out of its place in the grand story of God’s covenant faithfulness, we lose our place, the significance of our everyday life is undermined, and we fall out of the story.
Jesus also loses his place. He becomes the beautiful child but ceases to be God’s Messiah. The early church knew better. For them, Jesus’ birth “had strong political overtones,” Cohick says. It was more than a pretty story; it was a dangerous one. It meant something. It still does.
It is unexpected and even a little unnerving to realize that we are in the same story as Mary, only further along in the plot. What happened to her, to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi is part of our story. Just as they needed faith in God, courage in danger, and resoluteness in times of turmoil, so do we. Our story is thrilling a sequel to theirs, but it is not the final installment. That is still future, when the king who came comes again; this time, not as a baby, but as a victor. Or, as the author of Hebrews phrased it, “not to bear sin, but to bring salvation” (Heb. 9:28).
Through the wonder of grace, we are joined to the heroes of the faith—Abraham and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, and many others we don’t yet know but who have played roles in the ongoing story. We have our roles to play too, characterized by the same confusion and resolve—and glory—they knew. And all of this because of the shocking invasion, when God joined himself to us, bivouacked in swaddling and concealed in a manger.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. He also writes a religion column for Gatehouse Media.