The Drama of the Christmas Story

Jack L. Walker, Jr.

This year I am involved in directing my children's Christmas play again. This is the fourth time I have done it. I have no formal training in the dramatic arts. And personally, I could not act my way through a marketing survey interview. I just tell others what to do. I will leave the quality of my productions for someone else to judge. But I do enjoy the experience of directing. In addition to the inherent thrill I receive from seeing my children perform in something worthwhile, this annual undertaking has led me to reflect on the Christmas story, i.e. the Nativity, in a way that I had not done so previously. I would like to share some of those reflections with you.

The Nativity story works quite well as a dramatic medium for children. It is a wonderfully simple story with many interesting and uplifting elements. Wisely, most such productions leave out the part about Herod and the slaying of the innocents. Consider the story itself for a moment. Strangely enough, the Nativity narrative, at least the portion of that we traditionally commemorate, has an inactive protagonist (unless you call Mary or Joseph protagonist, depending on which gospel you use) and no antagonist (as I said, Herod is usually omitted. Enemies and blood are for Passion plays which are performed by either older children or adults).

In fact, the story itself (made by combining the birth accounts in Luke and Matthew, with a focus on the latter) is rather undramatic in and of itself. What is the central conflict? How is it resolved? Where is the characterization (the sinfulness of human kind does not translate well onto the stage). There doesn't seem to be one. It is, however, pretty and joyful. You would be pleased to see a production of it if your children were cast.

The joy of seeing your children on stage does not make the story dramatic, however. Most people would enjoy watching their child in almost any production. We must think about the story itself. What power does it have to move the sentiments on its own? I began to think about this as I considered how professional TV productions, something neither your child nor mine will likely participate in, about the Nativity story operate. Such shows usually focus on non-biblical characters that are touched by the Nativity and yet are not actually part of the biblical account.(The Little Drummer Boy and Amahl and the Night Visitors come to mind). Such dramas are very touching emotionally as the characters involved become moved or healed by the transforming love of the Christ child.

This realization regarding the lack of inherent drama in the Christmas story originally disturbed me. Why shouldn't the arrival of God's own Son into the world not be a perfect occasion for a highly dramatic presentation in its own right? Why do non-biblical characters and situations, or our own children in principal roles, need to be added in order for the story to strike us at the emotional level?

Let me go back a little bit to make my point. There was one thing that bothered me in my younger days as I annually encountered the Christmas story. There was such joy and beauty in the Christmas season. Why couldn't we just focus on that aspect of Christ's life? I hated to think that this beautifully divine child would eventually be rejected, tortured and executed in the most heinous manner. Although, it is necessary to recognize that Christ came into the world to be the divine sacrifice for us, this is not something that I like to think about while enjoying the warmth of the Christmas season.

But therein lies the answer, hinted at earlier, to the dramatical questions we raised surrounding the Nativity. The Nativity itself is not the story of Jesus. It is the beginning of his life on Earth. It is the introduction or an early chapter of the greater story, if you will.

It is the Passion and Resurrection of Christ that are most significant. Those portions of the gospels contain the uncanny elements of high drama in Christ's life: a kingly reception by people who scream for his death a few days later, the rejection before the very religious leaders that should have embraced him, a betrayal by one of his closest followers, three denials by his leading disciple, the release of a criminal instead of him to satisfy a bloodthirsty crowd. For a touch of the ironic, it is only people who recognize him for God are a Roman soldier, presumably one of his earlier tormentors, and a criminal on the next cross. Clearly there are no lack of antagonists in this part of the story. Virtually everyone serves in that role, especially those who should not. The protagonist, Jesus, wins through defeat. He draws the sinful gentiles, whether or not members of the Roman establishment, to himself. He also earns the salvation for those who killed him. Finally, it is the peripheral disciples (like Joseph of Arimathea) and the women (none of which were disciples), rather than his closest followers (Peter, James, John, et el) that make sure Jesus receives a decent burial. But in the end, it is his disciples who witness his life after death.

In pointing these elements out, I realize that the Passion/ Resurrection story, like the Christmas story, is also a backdrop for other popular dramas (such as Ben-Hur and The Robe). Nevertheless, the story of Christ's submission to and victory over death is clearly a theatrical story in and of itself, as many plays and movies have demonstrated. It is a story which causes us to both cry and rejoice. The Christmas story is but part of the preparation for the Easter story. The former has no real meaning without the latter.

If we were to attach a traditional genre label to the story of Christ, which one would be appropriate? It is not a tragedy. And not only because of the way it ends (overcoming death). Tragedies revolve around a fatal flaw in the protagonist which causes him to be consumed by a problem of his own making (ambition in Macbeth, for example). Christ has no flaw. I would say the story should be considered an epic. It is the greatest of epics. The epic hero, Christ, rescues his people and all of mankind from their own sinfulness, that is if they are willing.

Let us now return to the Nativity. The celebration of the coming of Christ seems to call us to focus in on the Nativity's pastoral elements. If we consider it a story moving to our emotions, it only because we know how the story continues and ends. But at this time of the year, we are not so interested in that part. We do not even want to think about the harshness of Herod in the greater Christmas story. Just tell us the pleasant things for the moment, please. We know what happens later. And those events will be celebrated in due time. For now, we just want to experience the joy of the birth of our Savior, and rightly so. Although this is just the start of the story, (and rather incomplete on its own) it remains quite a beginning, if not dramatic in the traditional sense. The pure simplicity of it make us pause and reflect. We should use the Christmas season for such reflection and encourage others to do so. Help the children don their costumes. Quiet on the set. Here we go, again.