A couple of teachers have asked for a retelling of the Christmas story appropriate for children. Some books have okay text but sappy pictures, they say, while others have gorgeous pictures -- primarily Madeleine l'Engle's Glorious Impossible -- but text for adults. Another adult misapprehension, that children like only simple art that looks like art they themselves could draw. Wrong: they love complex pictures. They'll look at them for hours and come back to them. Use The Glorious Impossible as a picture book for them and as a devotional reading for yourself.
My advice is that you read the story to your child from the Scripture itself at least once during the holidays. Shockingly, I further suggest that you use the King James Version -- it's a common mistaken adult assumption that children don't like big mysterious words. The truth is, they adore them. And their very mysteriousness prompts questions that children need to ask. Tell them to be patient, and then turn to A Christmas Story.
A Christmas Story
Mary was sitting in the garden behind her house. She sat alone. she was thinking. She had been spending a lot of time alone lately, thinking about what was going to happen. For something important was about to happen to her.
She was going to be married. Her parents had just told her. She had never met Joseph, the man who was going to be her husband. Where Mary lived, girls didn't speak to men who were not their fathers or brothers. Never. It was not allowed. And when it was time for a girl to get married -- when she was thirteen or fourteen -- her parents decided who she would marry.
She was thinking about what it would be like. She would have to leave her mother and father. She would have to leave all her cousins. She wouldn't be able to live in her own house any more. She hoped Joseph had a sister or something, or a girl cousin. She hoped his mother was nice. Mary's mother was her best friend. She looked up into the tamarind tree and her eyes filled with tears. She used to climb that tree when she was a little girl. She had even climbed it a few weeks ago, and her cousin Elizabeth caught a glimpse of her out the window. "Come down from there this minute, miss!" she scolded. Mary was too old to climb trees now, her cousin said. It was time to act like a lady, now that she was grown up enough to be married.
"Couldn't we wait a while?" she had asked her mother. "A couple of years, maybe? And then I could get married?"
Anna had reached for her daughter and held her close, stroking Mary's lovely black hair. Her eyes were brown like Mary's, and they looked now into the space just above Mary's head, at nothing in particular. She was thinking, too. Remembering. Anna had been thirteen when she married Mary's father. She hadn't wanted to leave home,either.
"Now, now, we'll visit back and forth. And then I'll come and help you with all your babies. You'll have, oh, I don't know, twenty-seven babies, maybe...?" Anna was teasing.
Mary smiled a little. "Thirty-seven."
"You'll be too busy to miss Mama."
"No, I won't." Mary's lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears again. She pressed her face against her mother's chest and breathed in deeply through her nose. She loved the way her mother smelled. She didn't want to go and live with Joseph or anybody else. She wanted to stay home.
"It's because of the census, you know," Anna said. "Joseph has to go to Bethlehem and give an accounting of his family, and you're going to be part of his family. So he has to take you, too."
"The census is stupid. Counting people is stupid. What good is counting people?"
"Well, I guess the Romans like to count things," Anna said, giving Mary an extra hug and standing up. "Now, I'm going to go back inside and start supper. Are you going to help me or shall I make fifteen loaves of pita all by myself?"
"I'll be there in just a minute." The sun was nearer to the horizon now, and it slanted through the leaves of the tamarind tree, making pools of golden light on the stone floor. The tamarinds hung from the branches all over the tree, plump and tempting. Later afternoon was a beautiful time.
"You don't have to get married, you know," a voice said.
Mary looked around. Nobody was there.
"I'm up here." The voice was coming from the tree. Mary looked up. Something glowing was perched in the spot where Mary usually sat when she climbed the tamarind.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Gabriel."
"How do you know about me? And that I'm getting married?"
"I just know." the glow settled itself in the notch between the two branches. "You don't have to, you know. You can just say no."
"Sure. Nobody ever has to do anything. They can always say no."
"But my parents chose Joseph for me. They know me. They do what's best for me."
"Yes, they do."
Mary was silent for a moment. The glowing thing in the tree was hard to see; she couldn't tell if it was a person or had a body like hers.
"Elizabeth's parents chose for her."
"Yes. By the way, I have a secret about Elizabeth."
"Yes. She's going to have a baby."
"Elizabeth? But she thought she couldn't have babies! She's been married for so long and no baby ever came."
"Well, she's having one now. I have another secret."
"Well, what is it?"
"You're going to have one, too."
"Well, I hope so! At least one! More than that, I hope. I always tell people I'm going to have thirty-seven."
"Well, I only know about the One."
"Really?" Mary wasn't sure whether or not to believe Gabriel, but she daydreamed about babies all the time. "Boy or girl?"
"Oh." Mary wanted a girl, but that was all right. She could have a girl next time. Surely a few of the thirty-seven babies would be girls. Besides, where Mary lived, people always wanted to have a boy first. Probably Joseph would want a boy.
"Do you know Joseph, too?"
"Yes. I come to him in dreams."
"I come to you in trees."
"You're pretty funny." Mary leaned closer to the glow. "What is Joseph like?"
"He is a good man. He is quiet and gentle. He is strong. He will be good to you."
"Well, is he handsome?"
"I think you're all beautiful. But I came to talk about the baby."
"The one you're going to have. This is happening soon, Mary. Not years from now, but now."
"Now? I'm thirteen!"
"Your little boy is going to be like other little boys, but also not like them. You will know this as soon as he is born, although you won't understand what it means for years. Things will happen throughout his life that will let you know that he is different."
You will know. Stay alert and you will see."
"But I don't see. Different how?"
You're all God's children. But this baby will be the Son of God. And you will be His mother.
"The Son of God?"
"He'll be the king."
"Like King Herod? No thanks." King Herod was a terrible king.
"Nothing like King Herod. Your baby will be like no other person who has ever lived."
"So this is why I'm getting married now? But you said I didn't have to get married. If I'm going to have a baby, hadn't I'd better hurry up?"
"You don't have to do any of this, Mary." Gabriel said. "You can always say no. Or...you can be part of God's adventure."
Mary thought. She thought of her mother at her age, setting off on the same path with Mary's father. She thought of Elizabeth, wishing for a baby and never having one, and how she was going to have one now. That was strange. She thought of this old tree, her companion throughout childhood, and that nothing glowing had ever sat in it and talked to her before. She thought of a baby boy, when she wanted a girl, and she felt the tiniest bit of excitement begin. She would go to Bethlehem. She would met Joseph's sisters. She would see things she had never seen. Joseph was kind. Joseph had big hands, strong hands from being a carpenter. Gabriel was an angel. Her baby was a king, wearing a crown....
"Miss Mary, are you ever coming in to help me with supper?" It was her mother. "I knew you'd fallen asleep out here!"
Mary looked up in the tree. It was empty. The sun was almost down, and the lamps were lit inside. Yes, she said in her mind, not with her lips. Yes. I'll do it. I'll be part of the adventure. Be it to me according to thy will.