When I was a kid, along with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the TV lineup would include the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told. It wasn’t my favorite of these sweeping Hollywood Bible epics – I much preferred the big arms of Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments or the frenetic chariot race in Ben Hur – and even now, the 1965 biopic of Jesus, starring Max von Sydow, only rates 35% at Rotten Tomatoes. Yet every Christmas, some network would trot out this film – The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Is it, though?
Considering how many millions of stories humans have been telling since humans were able to tell stories – is this one story really the greatest story ever told?
Let’s think about it:
A teenage girl – perhaps poor, perhaps of some means – we just don’t know – lives in a tiny village of about 500 people – a small enclave of Jews in the Roman-occupied territory. She is betrothed, but then finds herself pregnant, definitely not by her husband. For reasons we can only imagine, but which subsequent writers attribute to the evils of the occupying empire, this young girl and her fiancé travel about 80 miles away, where, in the middle of the night, the baby is born.
That’s actually not the remarkable part. Young women leave town to have their babies out of the watchful eye of disapproving neighbors all the time. Babies are born in the middle of the night in unexpected places all the time. We don’t always create tales of shepherds and magi and lowing cattle and snippy innkeepers when it happens, but the basic circumstances are not that remarkable.
It’s what happens next:
The baby grows into a child. According to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, one of the extracanonical and widely disputed early writings, this child spent much of his youth talking back to his elders, challenging the priests, and generally walking a fine line between precocious and belligerent.
But as an adult, this child, now a man – goes on to say and do amazing things. He preaches a message of love. He teaches those around him how to care for the poor, the sick, the lonely, the downtrodden, the lowest of society. He reaches out to many of other tribes and nationalities and skin colors. He points out the dangers of wealth and power, he rails against the status quo. He teaches his followers how to love God and each other, to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called beloved community –what we know here in Key West as One Human Family.
And here we are – a group of humans gathered together, with a variety of beliefs, questions, and suspicions about this man we call Jesus – gathered together over 6,600 miles away, gathered two thousand years later – telling the story of this child’s birth.
Whether we believe he was just a man or the Son of God, whether we believe his birth was a miracle or just another birth, whether we believe he was a teacher, a prophet, or a savior – we are here, telling his story, because what he taught is still so radical, still so needed in this age, and indeed every age.
So… maybe the movie wasn’t so great… but maybe this IS the greatest story ever told.
(Apologies to The Vicar of Dibley for borrowing and changing up her monologue in the “Winter” episode.)