When you see the wreaths and the poinsettias, you know something is coming. Usually that something is Christmas. Christmas, and the season of four weeks leading up to Christmas—remember what that time is called? Advent—is when we hear about John the Baptist, but we hear about John the Baptists as a baby, even before he was born.
Do you remember the names of the parents of John the Baptist? Zechariah and Elizabeth, who each get a story. Both of them were much too old to have a baby, and they thought all hope was lost, but then Zechariah hears from an angel that Elizabeth will become pregnant, and then she does get pregnant with a miracle baby.
Elizabeth is the relative of Mary, who was also pregnant around the same time, with her own miracle baby. The Gospel writer Luke gives us the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth—the babies leap in their wombs, some recognition between Jesus and John the Baptist. This is when Mary sang “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
The Advent and Christmas seasons are when we hear the baby stories, and all the hope that those babies represent. Even if we know how their stories will end, we don’t like to dwell on this at Christmas. We’d rather keep things nice, talk about babies and hope. Besides, during Advent and Christmas, as the calendar comes to a close, we have enough anxiety about everything else going on: usually about family gatherings, gifts, end-of-year bonuses, course finals and tests for students, closing out the fiscal year. We don’t have emotional space for the depth of the Christmas story. Herod is part of the Christmas story, but you never see him in the nativity scene.
These origin stories about Jesus and John the Baptist come from Luke’s Gospel, and Matthew’s Gospel also tells us some of Jesus’s origin story, but Mark’s Gospel gives us none of these origin stories. Mark writes his Gospel from the perspective of these men and their ministry as adults. And he writes about their grisly deaths.
So it’s interesting to sing Christmas songs on a day like today, hearing about the end of John the Baptist’s life. The miracle baby of Elizabeth and Zechariah will grow up to proclaim God’s Word and will be beheaded for his truth-telling.
We’re not turning this into a deterministic storyline: it’s not that Jesus was born in order to die; it’s not that John the Baptist was born just so he could be a martyr for the message. It’s not that their lives don’t matter. We know their lives do matter. Life and death and eternal life matter.
People—even Jesus and even John the Baptist—are born, and people live and die.
In the tradition of Godly Play tradition, the nativity scene stays out in the classroom, sitting on a shelf in a prominent place, all year round. The Holy Family is always present as a way to represent that the love of God is always there for us as a family, in all seasons. I’d love to show you the Holy Family, but my set of figures is pretty small and I don’t have a way to show them to you up close, so you’ll just have to come to a Godly Play class sometime. For now, just imagine in your mind a nativity scene.
The familiar characters are there—Mary, the mother; Joseph, the adoptive father; the non-biological family who were Magi and shepherds—they’re part of the Holy Family too. And there are sheep, inclusive of non-human family!
And the infant Jesus holds his arms outstretched, to give you a hug, to embrace humans with the love of God, and to give us a vision of the vulnerability the adult Jesus will encounter when his arms are nailed to the cross. The cross is part of the story of Jesus, and it’s there in the nativity scene too.
In the Godly Play guide, there are reasons for keeping the Holy Family present during the year—the story is always told at the beginning of the school year or the beginning of a program year, and the story is repeated anytime the liturgical color changes to reflect the change of the liturgical seasons. So sometimes the figures of the Holy Family are sitting on a white cloth, during the time of Christmas or Easter, or on what color during the time of Advent? Blue. Or like now, during ordinary time or this time after Pentecost—what’s the liturgical color now? Green. The Holy Family is for all seasons.
The Godly Play guide, prepared by Jerome Berryman, describes it this way:
“The Holy Family is the matrix—the Latin word for womb—out of which new life comes. This story is the story of the re-creation of the universe. Christ’s incarnation changes everything. Most especially, it changes the way we understand ourselves, each other, the Creator, and the created world around us.
“We find existential meaning in our lives, in the places into which we are born, through the network of relationships. The answer to life is not a propositional statement or verbal key. Instead of an answer, we find a home, every day, in the midst of this nest of relationships of love and creating.
“The axis of life in the Christian tradition is birth-death-rebirth. The children begin to perceive this axis through the naming of the Holy Family and through the careful, respectful moving of the figures. …We, like the Holy Family, are invited to be co-creators in the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual spheres of life.”
At Christmas, and even hearing the stories of people martyred for their faith, we are always proclaiming death and resurrection. Even a tragic death, like the horrifying story of John the Baptist’s death, is not the end of the story. We carry the hope of the resurrection with us always.
It doesn’t make sense but it is a mystery that is always being revealed to us through the grace of God. What is being made new, even now? What new hope is born in you today? What resurrection is being proclaimed? You have been made family through Jesus Christ.
 Jerome Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Volume 2, page 55-56.