Every year in December, our church presents a unique event called the Live Nativity Hayride for two evenings a couple of weeks before Christmas. Bundled up against the frigid temperatures, guests board a hay wagon and begin a 20-minute ride through seven scenes, as audio narration and live actors tell the story of the Nativity, beginning with the visit of the angel Gabriel through the ministry and death of Jesus.
It is – apologies here for my lack of objectivity – a stunning thing to watch. There’s nothing flashy or Hollywood about the sets or performances (no live camels), but rolling through the scenes, under the cover of starlight, is without a doubt the quintessential Christmas experience for me. But as the year has moved on, my thoughts have moved, too, beyond the compartmentalized Advent thoughts one usually experiences around Christmas. You see, the past few years, my two boys and I have volunteered as actors, playing the part of shepherds in the fields, greeted by angelic messengers with the news of Christ’s birth. Falling to the ground in wonder a dozen times a night has been a surprisingly surreal and powerful experience. It’s like stepping into a movie. Each year, at some point, I’m struck by the same thought:
“I’m in the story. Wow!”
And that’s where these thoughts move beyond Advent. Because this should be fairly obvious, right? Of course I’m in the story, and not just in playing my part as a shepherd. The too-good-not-to-be-true story of God’s relationship with mankind began in the garden, moved through the hills outside Bethlehem, right on to today, and will go on beyond me. I’m still a part of God’s story.
This truth, and the principle of incarnation it reveals, has been stopping me in my tracks regularly lately. Incarnation – a word which literally means “to become flesh” – is at the heart of stories. When a storyteller weaves a story, they give flesh to their values, creating characters, placing them into a world, and allowing them to make choices which will lead to other choices, and so on. True, the characters aren’t real, which might be seen as not actually “word-made-flesh,” but they exist in a world which, if created properly, forces the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to step into the world alongside the characters.
In the process, stories make assumptions about the world, and these assumptions speak in a way that logical propositions about the world never could. Andrew Peterson has been quoted as saying, “If you want someone to know the truth, tell them. If you want them to love the truth, tell them a story.”
How does that work? I wish I knew. But it does. In a way that defies any sort of procedural, push-button approach to understanding, stories reach us at our core. They inspire us and haunt us, dancing around in our subconscious, popping out at unexpected moments to force us to confront truths about ourselves and the world around us. Stories change us. The incarnational process of story changes us.
This year, incarnation – the enfleshing of truth, beauty, and goodness – has been at the heart of my family, and the stories I tell. Every story, from my improvised goofy bedtime farces starring a cast of stuffed friends, to the fully-realized, intricately-composed world of a published novel, is an opportunity to enflesh, to incarnate, the truth, beauty, and goodness of the One True Story.
And the telling of each others’ stories is equally miraculous. Some of the most unexpectedly delightful moments in my life have occurred when a friend has shared the story of their own life path. I listen, I learn, and I marvel at the way in which God’s grace and love are made incarnate in the lives of ordinary people like you and me. We are incarnation. We are God’s stories. Holy mystery of mysteries. The God of Abraham, the one whose form was so mighty and terrifying Moses had to hide his face, placed himself into the seed-life of an embryo inside a humble, scared teenager from Nazareth. He stepped into the story. He became a character and did more than just present his law and postulates. He carried them upon him. He lived the story. He bled the story.
And we story-carriers, we story-bearers, are living it still, with our lives, our words, and our deeds.
We carry the Story.