I like to make-believe that I was a player in the Christmas story. Not a character in a live nativity scene at the church down the street. No, I mean really there, where it all goes down. And in my fantasy, here’s what happens. The moment word gets out that the "No Vacancy" sign forced a pregnant teen to suffer labor pangs surrounded by cow slobber and sheep dung, I find the young couple and hand over my room keys to them. I’m up all night, pacing and praying, a cup of coffee in one hand, Hebrew scriptures in the other, reviewing prophecies and wondering if tonight is the night when all the messianic stars will align.
Finally, when the infant cries echo down the hallway and the shepherds show up with their tale of serenading seraphim, my eyes light up. I know. I believe. I crowd into my erstwhile hotel room, kneel shoulder-to-shoulder with the shepherds, and gaze with wondering eye at the baby boy, swaddled in the warm sheets I gladly gave up for him. A smile of gratitude shines from Mary’s tired face, Joseph gives me a firm handshake, and I whisper a prayer of thanks that I was privileged to be here on this night of nights, to play a tiny role in the Nativity story. Sweet, eh?
Of course, I can easily continue in the same vein. Years later, when the baby becomes a rabbi, where am I? Where else but at his feet, drinking in his every word. When Peter denies him, I confess. When he hangs on the cross, I weep beneath it. When Thomas doubts, I believe.
It’s easy to daydream myself into the sacred story, to participate in this sacred drama alongside all the big biblical names. In that fantasy I win the academy awards for the most faithful disciple and the supremely intrepid confessor.
But when I let my mind go there, in truth all I’m doing is this: bellying up to the bar of sentimentality to drink my fill of falsehoods that leave me intoxicated with feelings of saintly superiority.
If God gave me a time machine so I could go back to various events in Bible times, I suspect I’d out-eat Adam, out-drink Noah, out-anger Moses, out-adultery David, out-deny Peter, out-doubt Thomas, and out-sleep every resident in Bethlehem’s Motel 6. I’d at least give them a run for their money. For if there’s anything I excel at, it’s sinning.
Want to know how you’d act if you were a participant in the biblical story? Here's a very simple way to find out: ask yourself how you act now. Then you’ll know. For Christ is in your neighbor. "Whatever you did not do to one of the least of these," Jesus says, "you did not do it to me."
We are living the biblical story. There is no need to go back in time or make believe. And that’s why I, for one, am grateful that in the sacred stories, there are plenty of tales about sinners whom Jesus counts as friends.