Beth and I met one afternoon over hot chocolate to plan our yearly college Christmas party. She suggested we welcome everyone in from the snow with a little party game: as each girl arrived, we would tape the name of a character from the Christmas story on her back. By asking yes-or-no questions, the girl could learn who she represented. Beth and I brainstormed all the Christmas characters we could think of (Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the Donkey) but I thought our game was too easy. I wanted something clever, something no one would be able to guess.
“Quirinius!” I exclaimed.
“What?” said Beth.
“Quirinius! He was the governor of Syria when Jesus was born. It says so in Luke chapter two,” I said, “so he’s a Christmas character!”
“But no one will know who he is,” she protested.
“I know,” I insisted. “I’m sure it’ll be alright.”
“I guess…” and she added the name to her list.
The day of the party, I arrived early to help Beth rearrange her furniture and set out the Christmas food. When the other young women started showing up, Beth taped an index card on each one’s back, marking her as King Herod or The Shepherds. She taped a card on my back, too, but I ignored it and continued arranging the fudge brownies on a platter.
“Who am I?” Stacy rushed up to me as soon as she entered. “Am I a girl?”
“Um, no,” I replied.
“Okay, so I’m a boy. Am I Jesus?!”
“Am I…” After ten minutes of considering every male in the Christmas story, Stacy discovered her secret identity as the evil king Herod.
After everyone had arrived, been index-carded, and discovered their secret Christmas-story identities, Stacy realized that I was still ignoring my name-card. She demanded I turn my back to her so that she could find out who I was. And then she was silent.
“I don’t know who you are,” she finally admitted.
“Maybe you could get some help,” I suggested proudly. She must have been stumped by Anna or Simeon. They only get a few verses in the Bible, and not everyone knows about them.
But none of the girls who hovered around my back had any idea who I was, and Beth just smirked quietly as she set out more sodas. Was I a girl? Was I a boy? No one could say.
Stacy finally shrugged and said my name began with the letter Q. Quirinius! I suddenly remembered.
“I just put his name in there because I thought it would be fun for everyone,” I tried to explain, “He was governor of Syria, you know.”
“That wasn’t fun!” Stacy shot back as she walked away. “None of us knew what we were doing!”
One of those old-testament sages says “do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?” (Eccl. 7:16). I had included Quirinius because I was proud of what I knew, but I saw that I had also been “overrighteous.” In trying to look better, know more, and correct my friends’ errors (“There was no donkey in the Christmas story, dummy!”) I was only hurting my relationships.
In choosing Quirinius, I memorized one name from the Bible and forgot the larger story—a story about God’s promises, his people, and his love. I learned that my relationships with God and others are more important that obscure history—even Biblical history.
Quirinius was probably the least important character in the Christmas story. But through one of the least important characters, I learned one of the most important lessons.