From the Rectory - December 2016
I had fun digging out some pictures of last year’s Messy Christmas for this month’s church magazine. Some may find them irreverent, but Christmas lends itself to fun and to being reinterpreted for each generation.
Some of the details we assume are in the story of the Nativity aren’t actually in the Bible: the donkey, the innkeeper, the stable... and the Kings aren’t kings – they are Magi. Recent children’s nativities include all sorts of characters – such as aliens! But this isn’t totally new. The Medieval mystery plays improvised on the Bible stories, bringing them to life for the people of their day.
Even great works of art are far from ‘authentic’ Nativity scenes. For centuries artists have translated the birth of Jesus into their own culture and times – Italian landscapes, medieval costumes... They can be inspiring, of course, with deep theological meaning. But they don’t reflect the world of Palestine in something like 4 BC.
Paintings and stained glass windows can make something look very beautiful. But the birth of Jesus was actually very messy. Mary wasn’t married, Joseph wasn’t the Father, they had to go on a long journey – probably without donkey – when she was heavily pregnant. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Inevitably in life things go wrong for us – some will be rather trivial, like taking a wrong turning and going several miles out of our way, using extra fuel. Sometimes they are huge things which take years to deal with or recover from, if at all. But in a sense, God is in that mess and can always use it for his good purposes.
And so we read in the scriptures, ‘But when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him.’ (Galatians 4, verse 4 – Contemporary English Version) The Message puts it like this: ‘But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman.’
Christmas might have seemed messy from a human point of view, but from God’s point of view it was ‘right’. The timing was right. The place was right, fulfilling a prophecy about Bethlehem. The lack of somewhere to stay was right. God coming to be with us in mess and humility was right.
Poets have also added inauthentic details to the Christmas story, but often to allude to theological truths. In the popular carol, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’, Christina Rossetti said that ‘earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’, referring to the hardness of people’s hearts. In her ‘Christmas Eve’ (see below), she wrote that ‘Christmas bringeth Jesus, brought for us so low.’ And that’s the point of Christmas. It defies all the logic of the world. It defies all of our organisation, tidiness and glamour. But replaces them with a different type of glory: God coming right down to earth in human flesh. Yet its darkness is ‘brighter than the blazing noon’, and its ‘chillness warmer than the heat of June’. And its messiness is more planned than a perfectly organised Christmas home.
When you haven’t quite got all the cards in the post on time, and you haven’t quite got every present wrapped up, and the tree isn’t quite the one you wanted... remember Jesus, ‘brought for us so low’, and those in similar circumstances today.
With every blessing for Christmas and the New Year
Christmas Eve – Christina Rossetti
Christmas hath darkness Brighter than the blazing noon, Christmas hath a chillness Warmer than the heat of June, Christmas hath a beauty Lovelier than the world can show: For Christmas bringeth Jesus, Brought for us so low.
Earth, strike up your music, Birds that sing and bells that ring; Heaven hath answering music For all Angels soon to sing: Earth, put on your whitest Bridal robe of spotless snow: For Christmas bringeth Jesus, Brought for us so low.