Illustrations can be powerful tools when conveying profound truths. Most of the memories I have from the sermons of the Pastors whose preaching I sat under in my own formative years are the stories they told. As a child, I heard one story in particular from a Pastor at Christmastime; and I have never forgotten it. It was about a little child which was tragically overlooked and forgotten at an event planned in its own honor.
Years later, as a young pastor myself, with little life experience and just beginning a lifetime of communicating, I tended to draw a lot of stories from books. Indeed, I collected up numerous books of stories designed to help me communicate. One of my favorite books was (and still is) one titled Illustrations Unlimited by James S. Hewett. It was published by Tyndale House Publishers in Wheaton, Illinois back in 1988.
Dr. Hewett was for years the Senior Pastor of Presbyterian churches in Walnut Creek, California, and Saratoga, California. He was also formerly the editor and publisher of Parables Etc. and The Pastors Story File, two monthly newsletters of illustrations for speakers.
I soon discovered that his book of illustrations contained that same story that I had heard so many years earlier and that had so impacted me. It has remained my favorite all-time Christmas story. It is titled simply “The Christening”. I wanted to post it here today.
The story is told of a Christening that was to be held many years ago by a very wealthy European family. Many guests were invited to the home for the occasion and came in the very latest fashionable garb. Their wraps and coats were carried to a bedroom and laid upon the beds.
After the usual lot of conversation and commotion, they were ready for the christening ceremony and someone asked, "Where is the baby?" The nurse was sent upstairs to look and returned in alarmed distress. The baby was nowhere to be found!
After several minutes search, someone remembered that the child had last been seen lying on one of the beds; and after a frantic search, the little child was found smothered under the wraps of the guests. The chief reason why they had come had been forgotten, neglected, and destroyed!
Dr. Hewett’s concluding admonition is especially poignant. He states:
This Christmas, many will forget, neglect, and even destroy the Christ child! He is smothered by the tinsel, wrapping paper, ribbon, and make-believe that surround the festive occasion reminding us of the words of Luke, "There was no room for them in the inn." Let's not crowd Christ out of Christmas.
And may I offer a hardy “Amen”!
NOTE: As is so often the custom, the merits of this story are discussed at length in sites that specialize in the investigation of purported e-mail glurge. See, for instance, http://www.snopes.com/horrors/parental/coats.asp. Here, the concluding commentary provided is not exactly favorable, calling this story a “rather gruesome communication” of the purpose of Christmas because it uses “vivid mental images of a grieving mother clutching to her bosom the lifeless body of her adored child” to make its point about losing the Christ child amidst the business of Christmas. The authors are certainly entitled to their opinions.
Nonetheless, my copy of the story above is taken directly from Dr. Hewett’s published book; and it contains no such vivid imagery, stating only that the child had smothered. Now the Bible does affirm that, some 33 years after His birth, the little Child named Jesus would one day grow up and be put to death by the gruesome means of crucifixion. He was smothered underneath the sin of mankind as He hung on that cross. It is probable that, after that event, His mother did indeed clutch to her bosom His lifeless body. Of course, three days later, she would also have kneeled at His feet as He came forth from the grave as the victorious Risen Lord and Savior!
It may be that a relatively recent set of headlines about a blatantly irresponsible mother allowing her own infant child to suffocate while she was next door on a drinking binge is what drives some of the modern reticence toward Dr. Hewett’s otherwise timeless illustration of losing Christ amidst the festivities of Christmas. (Cf.: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/11
What is the origin of Dr. Hewett's story? It is hard to say for sure. It begins with wording that indicates it may never have been intended to be taken literally. Stories do not have to be true literally in order to convey great meaning. Witness the parables of Jesus.
Famed French author Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) once wrote a fictional short story called The Christening. He was a member of a group of writers which called themselves “naturalists”, and whose aim was to show the life, suffering, and exploitation of ordinary people. Maupassant’s is a sad tale involving the death of a small child due to exposure on the cold winter night of his Christening, all due to the flagrant irresponsibility of his family and the attending clergy. (Cf.: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/christening.html.)
Perhaps Maupassant’s story is ultimately the origin of the similar one eventually collected and published by Dr. Hewett. One can never know for sure. While Maupassant’s tale is set in the context of the approach of Christmas, it technically has a different purpose in that it attempts to addresses the devastating tragedy of alcoholism so prominent in the lives of the hopeless peasants of his day, many of which were often driven to drink by despair as a result of oppression, ignorance, and superstition.
Alcoholism is indeed tragic, as are despair and hopelessness. But for most Evangelical Christians today, the far bigger tempatation at this time of the year is simply to lose sight of the Christ child in the midst of the celebration of His own birth. May we ever be on guard against that subtle trap.