Nativity Lent

Telling the Nativity story, with help of two foster boys

Night after night, Jesse and Kelly Cone led their children through some of the most familiar verses in all of Christianity. The goal was to use the quiet pre-Christmas season of Advent -- or Nativity Lent in their Eastern Orthodox parish in Santa Maria, Calif. -- to help their young sons grasp the meaning of Feast of the Nativity, which begins Dec. 25th and continues for 12 days. This isn't easy in a culture in which the powers that be roll out the Christmas bandwagon with the Halloween candy, well before the Thanksgiving turkey.

Each night at their simple Lenten meals the Cones opened a bag containing a verse or two of scripture, and four pieces of candy. The story started slowly, with all the familiar details about Roman politics, taxes, a census and a man named Joseph, making a precarious journey with his pregnant wife, Mary.

Then came this crucial detail, the moment when Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

All of this was familiar territory for the two Cone sons, but not for the two foster children living with the family.

"These boys were new to the Nativity story, but they certainly knew all about being homeless and alone," explained Kelly Cone, reached by telephone.

In a post online, that has since gone viral, she described the turning point: "Then we reached the part of the story where Mary and Joseph were forced to stay in a stable outside, cold and alone. No one had any room for them. They did the best they could, even though it was lower than low.

"I looked up at our 10-year-old foster boy, and his head was bowed, his face drawn and serious. Unlike his 5-year-old happy-go-lucky brother beside him, he remembers. He remembers the cold nights sleeping on the street or in someone's car because his mother had nowhere safe for him to stay. Instead of protecting him and reaching out for help, she eventually abandoned him at a mobile home park."

The 10-year-old boy -- who cannot be named due to privacy issues -- had tears in his eyes. Kelly Cone asked him how he thought Mary and Joseph must have felt.

"Sad. Cold," he replied.

From that moment on, the Cones knew this would not be an ordinary Advent and Christmas. There were children at their table who were hearing the Nativity story for the first time and, day after day, this reality began to gnaw at the Cones "like a bad toothache," she said.

The questions kept coming. Yes, the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church. Yes, Christians really believes that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own. Yes, shepherds in that part of the world had to sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions. Yes, coming face to face with an army of angels probably freaked the shepherds out.

While his wife processed her thoughts online, Jesse Cone shared these Advent dinner vignettes with students at the Christian high school where he teaches.

"Every kid knows the story, and every kid there has read a lot of theology. ... I told the story at our Christmas chapel -- not as eloquently as my wife did -- and people were crying," he said. As it turns out, "not only can you get a better view of the Nativity story by spending time with homeless boys than at the mall, you can see it better than you can from a theology department."

In California, he noted, people sing all kinds of Christmas carols that make references to snow and this becomes normal, even when snow is something that they rarely if every experience. The snow exists in their minds and they are comfortable with that. Sadly, the same thing tends to happen with the Nativity story itself.

All of these details, added Jesse Cone, are "artifacts we appreciate from a distance. That's what Christ meant for these boys before actually hearing the story, and that's how it can become for many of us as well."

But not this Christmas: This year the story came home for real.

That Church Calendar Christmas Crunch

In the beginning, there were humble Nativity pageants for the kids and Christmas choir extravaganzas for the grown-ups.

As the decades passed, some big Protestant churches began hiring orchestras and buying advertisements, creating a music-ministries arms race that pitted the Baptists against the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians against the Methodists. Some prosperous churches even began moving these performances on stage or outdoors, adding elaborate sets, costumes and lights.

But the leaders of these churches agreed on one thing -- big Christmas events were supposed to be held on the Sunday before Christmas. Most of the faithful stayed home to fill their roles in the big shows in their churches and then hit the road.

"Going to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was something the Catholics did and all the people in those other churches that followed the church calendar," said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College.

"For most Protestants, Christmas was about being with your family. Churches weren't open on Christmas, but nobody thought much about it -- unless Christmas fell on a Sunday. Then things could get complicated."

This is precisely what happened this year, of course, when some of America's largest evangelical churches made headlines by canceling their Sunday services on Christmas Day, urging the faithful to stay home with their families. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and many other news organizations said this was an ironic decision in a year when conservatives were attacking any merchants and government leaders who refused to "put Christ back in Christmas."

It seemed, said Witvliet, that "part of the problem was that headline that everyone was using -- 'Churches Close On Christmas.' That just seemed so counter-intuitive to people who have never really given much thought to the problems that churches have year after year trying to negotiate their Christmas schedules so that things work out for their families. ...

"But this is old news. This problem has been getting worse for decades."

Like it or not, the old Christmas traditions built on extended families and small, neighborhood churches have been shredded by decades of interstate highways, divorces, Thanksgiving shopping blitzes, mass media, secular parties and cheap airplane tickets.

Modern clergy find it hard to get the numbers to add up.

How is a church music minister going to handle a difficult Christmas cantata when only one or two tenors or sopranos remain in town? What are elementary-grade Sunday school leaders supposed to do when most of their Nativity pageant angels, shepherds and wise men have been air-lifted to distant zip codes to visit various grandparents or ski resorts?

Drastic times produce pragmatic pastors and priests. Thus, it has been a decade or two since most churches -- Protestant and Catholic churches alike -- began moving many of their Christmas festivities into mid-December and even earlier in an attempt to find gaps in the log-jammed calendars of their wandering members.

Those Christmas concerts that used to be scheduled for Sundays around Dec. 22 or 23 began drifting earlier and earlier in the month. At many churches, organizations and, especially, Christian schools the Christmas season is all but over by Dec. 15 or 16 or earlier. All that's left is frantic shopping and the rites of travel, food, family, fellowship and television.

"At some point, the whole month of December turns into Christmas and people just do what they have to do to jam everything in there," said Witvliet.

The only surprising part of this year's megachurch Christmas controversy, he added, was that some influential Protestant churches decided to close their doors on a Sunday. After all, it is perfectly normal for Protestant churches not to gather for worship on the Feast of the Nativity, even though it is one of the most important holy days in Christian tradition.

And what about observing the traditional Christmas season itself, which begins on Dec. 25th and continues through Epiphany on Jan. 6th?

"Even talking about the traditional 12 days is like asking people to run uphill against everything that's going on around them," said Witvliet. "Most of what happens in the church today is, sadly, being driven by the calendar of the shopping mall. That's how people order their lives."