I love following celebrities on Instagram. I know most of it is contrived—that underpaid interns and social media managers post the flurry of behind-the-scenes pictures and videos. Still, I can’t help but open every story, investigate every picture, consider every caption.
The truth is I don’t know these people. We don’t hang out on the weekends. They don’t even know I exist. But on the rare occasion they post something that peels back the facade for a moment, I get the chance to feel as if I know them a little better.
Daniel Darling’s The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus is to the characters of Christmas story what Instagram is to celebrities. By profiling each participant in Jesus’s birth story, he offers a unique look at historic people we think we know all too well. From Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds to the lesser-known Anna, Simeon, and the members of Jesus’s genealogy, Darling shines a spotlight on an unlikely cast of biblical characters to remind Christians why we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The Bigger Picture
One of the greatest strengths of the book is its ability to zoom in on the details of each character’s story while also keeping the entire context of scripture in view. Instead of staying within the confines of Matthew and Luke, Darling ventures from Genesis to Revelation showing how Jesus’s birth didn’t occur in a vacuum. The Christmas story—and its characters—are significant not only because of their presence on the micro level, but also because of where Christmas falls in the grand story of the Bible.
In the chapter on Herod, for example, Darling returns to the opening pages of the Bible to establish why we see an enemy of God in the Christmas story. The tension began in the Garden of Eden and continues throughout the Bible. By journeying back through the biblical story, Darling shows how Herod’s actions play into the rest of the story. The king’s evil reinforces the spiritual reality of Jesus’s entry into the world—he was making a move on enemy territory to rescue his people.
The Characters of Christmas also asks the reader to reflect as a way of preparing to celebrate Jesus’s coming. In the true spirit of the Advent season, Darling encourages Christians to consider their own hearts. Are we waiting expectantly on God like Simeon? Do we walk in faithfulness to God like Mary? Is there any part of us questioning God like Zechariah? I found myself pausing often to consider the questions Darling asks throughout each of his chapters.
Every one includes personal reflections that take this book from a mere historical summary of events to a devotional reading. Darling’s illustrations make it easy to imagine what it would have been like to be a shepherd or priest in the first century. By taking the biblical story and pulling its principles into modern life, he offers a clear path to both considering the lives of the people in the Christmas story as well as our own lives.
An Unexpected Kingdom
For some, the information about the characters offered by the book will provide nothing new. I’ve heard the story since I could understand words—the people in the narrative are as familiar to me as the celebrity faces on my Instagram feed. But what makes The Characters of Christmas unique is that it asks us to consider each person’s humanity and, in turn, our own.
One of the book’s shining moments comes at the very end as Darling writes about the two genealogies of Jesus listed in Matthew and Luke. Many people skim through the long lists of names, but he takes care to point out the reason why Matthew and Luke included Jesus’s family history. Colorful characters like Rahab, David, and Tamar, all of whom had reason to believe God would overlook them became main players in God’s grand story. The genealogies show how Jesus came from royalty and fulfilled ancient promises to Abraham, but they also reveal the way God subverts our expectations. He uses prostitutes, murderers, and widows. His kingdom begins with a pregnant girl from Nazareth.
The Christmas story—and all its characters—also reminds us that God came to us and turned everything upside down. His kingdom came not on the shoulders of a mighty ruler or with the strength of an army, but in the fragile life of a newborn peasant. When we look beyond our nativity sets to the people themselves, we see that they were just as human as we are today. Much like watching an Instagram story from a famous actor, The Characters of Christmas pulls back the facade we’ve created for these characters bringing new life to a well-known story. This book asks us to reflect on our own humanity by peering into the lives of those surrounding Jesus’s birth. Getting to know them helps us know ourselves better. Like them, we depend on God’s timing, struggle with doubt, and wait for our Messiah to come.