Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.
It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.
But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.
My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)
And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?
All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.
We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?