There weren’t three kings at the stable when Jesus was born.
The stereotype of the Christmas story that gets promulgated at this time of year, verses the actual facts of the Nativity, is a subject that has kept cropping up over the last couple of weeks, and so I just want to point out that the kings were actually wise men, and while we know there were three different gifts, we don’t know if this meant there were just three visitors. Also, they didn’t come to the stable; they turned up a lot later – possibly up to two years later – by which time Mary, Joseph and Jesus had found themselves a house to stay in.
Chances are Jesus wasn’t born in December either, but then it’s fairly well known that December 25th was a co-opted solstice festival.
Other than sermons, the thing that has made me think about this subject has been the BBC’s adaptation of the Christmas story, The Nativity (broadcast Monday to Thursday this week). It’s a fairly straight-forward (but nicely done) retelling, with the soap opera elements brought slightly more to the forefront than is usual. One of the lines that hit home was a sceptical Joseph, having been told that Mary is pregnant whilst still being a virgin, asking her if she’d been raped. It’s a fairly brutal line, but it felt realistic – of course they’d be having that sort of conversation, and things like that brought home the reality of the situation as opposed to the Christmas card image we tend to have in our heads.
(Of course, I know some people are right now questioning the reality of any of the story, but this is a Christian blog and it’s Christmas, and I’m taking the biblical accounts at face value. In your face, Richard Dawkins!)
I think this is also why Fairytale of New York is my favourite Christmas song – it’s not all sleigh bells and cheese, it’s somewhat grim in places, but it’s about hope and redemption when you’re down and out and that seems pretty appropriate in a season inspired by the faith of a bunch of outsiders (a teenage girl, marginalised shepherds, astrologers) under trying circumstances (teenage pregnancy, no room at the inn, public disgrace, and let’s not forget that the whole story ends with a massacre and the Holy Family becoming refugees in Egypt).
But even as I type this, I’m aware that this approach is limited. Because while it’s good to remember the everydayness of the story, and the harsh realities that lay behind all the elements we take for granted, I’m also aware that so many people I’ve spoken to have said that this year it just doesn’t feel like Christmas, and I’ve got to admit, I feel the same way. I’ve been to carol services and Christmas parties, I’ve wrapped presents, I’ve got a Christmas tree, I’ve read behind-the-scenes reports from the Doctor Who Christmas Special, I’ve checked out Norad tracking Santa (he’s currently in Athens), but I just don’t feel particularly Christmassy. This isn’t because I’m in a strop, or I’m having a theological crisis, or I’m having a ‘Bah, Humbug’ moment, I’m just not feeling the vibes this year. In the words of the carol, it feels like winter but not Christmas, and I’m not down with this.
So maybe, when reflecting on the realities of the Christmas story, there’s also a need to focus on its mythic traits (and something can be both true and mythic – I guess Dunkirk is an example – while the quote by CS Lewis I normally pull out when this discussion crrops up is the second one on this page). Because the whole point of noting that there was the possibility that Mary could have been stoned to death, or that the shepherds were a despised underclass, is that into the midst of all this sociology and politics, God incarnates into a human being, the divine steps into the muck and the confusion of everyday existance. A title given to Jesus at this time of year is Immanuel, God with us, the incarnation, and that’s not an everyday thing, that’s something about which mountains of theology has been written. Sure, Christmas has accumulated a lot of baggage, but at its heart is a concept that can’t be discarded without the whole thing falling apart. It’s easy to forget, or overlook, how the mundane rubs shoulders with the miraculous at this time of year, and that’s something that bears remembering. Maybe it’s why my second favourite Christmas song is It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas.
So, with two hours to go, and with Santa in Botswana, maybe there’s still time to make the leap from the mundane to the transcendent. And to realise that, despite the snow and the resultant scary crunching of my ABS brakes, winter hasn’t won; the days are getting slowly lighter and Christmas has triumphed again; the baby is born and the Word becomes Flesh, and so let the bells ring and the cheesy pop songs play.
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