The essence of a sermon preached recently
The Christmas that we have come to know and love in Britain at least, is wrapped in imagery and notions that are wonderful for marketting and evocation, but less pinned to the facts. We see the usual Christmas Card images of little domed houses to represent a tiny peaceful Bethlehem (and the carol tell us so too). We see the 'magazine rack' manger in art and in the wonderful nativity plays that are unfolding all around us at the moment. We see the noble shepherds huddled around their hillside while their sheep gambol around the place. Cow sheds, silence and stillness are ever-present qualities in all the things that we see and sing about. A moment of attention to the real world of first-century Palestine will reveal all these images to be flawed, and to my mind, unhelpful.
The picture is at the checkpoint to enter Bethlehem from Jersualem - a forbidding and unsafe feeling place as one passes through the gates. The Bethlehem that I have visited and heard about is a busy place, a place of bustle and life. I am given to understand that it always was. The place is on a hillside so the warm air carried with it the fragrance of sweet smelling plants mixed with a very light tinge of effluent in places. Shepherds had a poor reputation, reegarded in their day as borderline criminals - marginalised, excluded. The cow shed never existed - the Baby and his family were in a maze of caves in the hillside used as stables and storehouses. Mangers are hollowed out stone slabs, and if anyone has ever kept a pet, will know how saliva-washed sticky and snotty they can get. I am sure that the Manger in our carols was no exception. The Holy family were refugees in an occupied territory, perhaps accustomed to checkpoints themselves. The Holy mother was herself a child of fourteen. How many labels and judgements would the Holy Family attract in enlightened 21st Century Britain today, I wonder?
It do not mean to decimate Christmas - quite the oppsite. I want to celebrate the place of the Birth of the Messiah in the same way that The Father did, and by seeing the world for what it is - real and flawed. God chose the real world of a messed up first-century Palestine as the place where he would cause his Incarnation. There were likely pretty verdant pastures with all the qualities of present-day Christmas imagary that God could have used - but he didn't. He chose messed up, messy, flawed, imperfect, stinky, snotty reality to breathe life into his only Son.
This is a matter of complete hope for me, and should be for all of us. As we make our way through our lives, day by day, mistake upon error, mis-judgement alongside poor timing - we can take considerable comfort that that was the precise environment that God chose to come among us. It tells me, at least, that Our Lord understands his children only too well, and that in knowing us as we are in the good and the less good of living as human beings, accepts us as we hope all parents do (or should). Christmas did happen in the real, happens in the real every year, and all that will take place between us and God in the future will be placed into the context that we find ourselves in - not a picture perfect representation of where we think we should be.