Yeah, about those shepherds…
The nativity scene has become sanitised over the centuries; the stable is clean, the livestock obedient, Mary looks very chilled for a woman who’s just given birth… It’s all very nice and pretty and suitable for children to reenact.
Only that’s not the case. Because this quiet, peaceful, star-bathed scene was, in reality, a gathering of outsiders. That’s hard to comprehend, what with ‘Christian values’ disingenously being used as shorthand for ‘establishment’ (well, the bits that don’t cover grace, compassion and concern for the poor, hint hint.), but all those people in that Christmas card scene were on the margins (with the exception of Jesus, of course, possible exception of Joseph, depending on how generous people would have been). Well, maybe not the donkey.
So the shepherds? Losers. Thieves. Liars. The lowest of the economic low. You want to announce the birth of the Son of God? Shepherds wouldn’t have been top of your list. Sure, some of Israel’s greatest heroes had been shepherds (Moses, David, Jacob), but somewhere along the line the profession had fallen out of favour. And yet there they are, peering into the manger, looking at the king.
Then there are the wise men. Over the years they mutated into kings, maybe because that’s more respectable than the truth – they were a different nationality to everyone else in that stable, different religion. They don’t know this society, because they accidentally throw a match into a political tinderbox which ultimately costs lives. They’re rich, they’re learned, but they’re still on the outside looking in.
Then there’s Mary. A teenage girl, pregnant under mysterious circumstances. She swears the baby isn’t Joseph’s, but you know what village gossip is like. Did people think Joseph had been getting frisky out of wedlock? Or did people just think he was a sucker, sticking with someone who’d apparently cheated on him? Despite the truth being greater and more profound than parochial imaginations, you can’t stop tittle-tattle.
All this is why any attempt to cite Christian values as a sop to middle class respectability is doomed to failure. Because one of the primary Christian values is grace, and that’s often found among the outsiders, the marginalised. It defies the concept of a meritocracy – the lives of those on the fringes of society can be divinely transformed, not through hard work, not through social control, but through God reaching out, becoming a part of his world and incarnating not in palaces or vicarages but in a stable and, ultimately, on a cross. In a word, grace.
And grace, to quote U2, makes beauty out of ugly things.