Some years ago, I was taking part in a quiz about the bible in which we were able to use bibles to find the answers. One of the questions was “Where in St. Mark’s Gospel does the birth of Jesus appear?” It was sad to see how many people spent time searching for it because the answer is, of course, that it’s not there. Mark jumps straight in, telling us that this is the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. The birth narrative is superfluous to what Mark wants to tell us.
I think that’s something for us to remember this year when carol services and nativity plays aren’t able to take place as they usually do. For many people, those events are their annual fix of Christianity. Yet what they get is a sentimental, watered down, and often incorrect view of both the Christmas story and the Christian faith. Nativity plays are at best a mish mash of the stories in Matthew and Luke, and at worst have all kinds of other things added so that all the children can have a part. I can remember one of our children being sent home from school with various questions about the Christmas story. One of them was, “Who came first, the shepherds or the wise men?” The obvious answer was the shepherds and whichever son had the questions was most put out when I suggested it should be the wise men because they appear two whole books before the shepherds get a look in!
We can so easily miss out on the amazing message of Christmas, as Charles Wesley puts it, “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” The ah factor of the nativity play is nothing compared to that. The great almighty God choosing to come to dwell on earth as one of us, and in such desperate circumstances. It’s no surprise that the kings/wise men/astrologers/ rich visitors from the East (delete as appropriate) get to the wrong place by going to Herod’s palace. Surely that’s where any special baby is going to be born.
God doesn’t work like that though. This is a story of teenage pregnancy with, as far as the world is concerned, doubtful parentage. Would you tell your mother that you were pregnant, but it was ok because you’d seen an angel? It’s about homelessness, about refugees, about all those at the bottom of society because that is how God chooses to come to earth.
And that is why it is good news. It’s about God turning the world upside down. In spite of the Government’s relaxation of some restrictions over the Christmas period, some people are still talking about Christmas being cancelled. That can never be the case so let’s take it upon ourselves to make sure they get the real message of Christmas, rather than their usual sanitised version. Let’s commit ourselves to making sure that our friends and neighbours know that, even in the midst of a crisis, we have something to celebrate. We have a God who understands our suffering and stands with us, this Christmas and in all the days that will follow it. That is Good News!