Can I be honest? The nativity story has grown a little stale for me.
Those of us raised in the Church, at least, have heard the story multiple times each December for every December of our lives. For evidence that the store is tired is easily found at many Christmas services: it seems every year ministers try, in near desperation, to make the story new and shocking, as it must have been to first-time listeners. They explain what it was like when they (or, more often, their wives) were nine months pregnant. They attempt to evoke the scents and noises of a barn. They emphasize, ad nauseum, that the God of the cosmos became a vulnerable infant.
And congregations yawn.
Baby Jesus may fail to impress, but unicorns… Ah. Unicorns are magical, mysterious, mythical, brilliant in the most glitter-infused sense. They are extremely wild, a symbol of purity and grace. Some have believed that the horn of such a creature can render poisoned water potable and heal sickness. In The Chronicles of Narnia, unicorns are among the most noble and honorable creatures, known for their fierce loyalty to Aslan, their wisdom, and their strength in battle . In Harry Potter, unicorn blood can keep alive those on the brink of death. In short: the unicorn is a symbol of whatever is most good and life-giving.
Which brings me to the Christmas Unicorn, featured in a song of the same name released this season by Sufjan Stevens. After our first listen, my husband asked, “what did you think?”
I think this is the freshest incarnation I have ever known. God becoming human has become familiar, even overly-familiar, yet the incarnation of a unicorn, the human embodiment of purity, grace, wildness, one who brings living water and heals the sick… Are we talking about unicorns or Jesus? Is there a difference?
Highlighted throughout the majority of the song is the repetition:
I’m the Christmas Unicorn,
You’re the Christmas Unicorn, too
It’s alright; I love you!
The good news of the incarnation that we often forget, the message of the Christmas season that we wish would last throughout the year: it’s not that Jesus was born, lived, died, and lived again. It’s that Jesus was born, lived, died, and continues to live through the spirit, through the church, through each of us. Jesus is the first Christmas Unicorn, but you’re the Christmas unicorn, too.
Even this concept, that we’re unicorns, has a kind of magic to it. I don’t know what it means to follow Jesus: is it wearing robes without mixed fibers like A. J. Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically? Or perhaps more seriously, picking up hitchhikers and attending Jewish festivals like Ed Dobson his Year of Living Like Jesus? I think it’s something much more wild and beautiful, unique to each of us; Jesus didn’t ask us to live his life, he asked us to live our lives following him. Somehow the phrase “living like Jesus” is more clearly evoked in “being a unicorn”– it’s being what we already are, not mimicking someone from a different time and place. Sufjan addresses this well. Something of what it means to be Christmas unicorns is summarized between the repetition of the Joy Division lyrics “Love: love will tear us apart” and “It’s alright; I love you!” In the human suffering of Jesus we see that love will indeed tear us apart, that the road of love leads to crucifixion, and yet it’s alright, Jesus loves anyway, we love anyway, and in the end love somehow comes out on top, resilient against all resisting forces.
That first listen, the possibilities of the incarnation of a unicorn were swirling in my head, the freshness of this Christmas retelling making me feel like I could dance, and even prance, all while telling everyone I know that they may be in “the human uniform” but are really unicorns just like me, singing that it’s alright, I love you!
I hurriedly rushed some of these thoughts out to my husband, who listened with raised eyebrows and responded, “I love that it has Joy Division.”
Yes, I like that too.