Many of you will have been to a school nativity play this Christmas. I wonder what you found? The answer isn’t as obvious as it should be. Some schools have changed ‘Christmas’ to ‘winter festival’ (like the illuminated sign on our town hall – once upon a time it used to say Happy Christmas too, but despite my best efforts, it’s now Seasons Greetings – without even so much as an apostrophe!). In most nativities, Mary and Joseph are still there, because the appeal of childbirth is universal. But instead of angels, shepherds and wise men, you may well find other characters crowding the stage: aliens from Star Wars, punk fairies, football celebrities, drunken spacemen, a lobster. And where the infant Christ should be, some more modern messiah such as Elvis Presley.
You don’t believe me? I’m afraid it’s true. Welcome to Nativity 2014-style. It seems we are losing confidence in the festivals our country has observed for centuries. Many of our friends of other religious faiths tell us not to lose confidence. They want us not to forget Britain’s deep Christian roots. Some Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, join in out of respect for our native culture, or because they honour Jesus as prophet of a great world faith. But I read a news item recently telling us that in some schools, teachers are afraid of causing offence by talking to children about Jesus’ birth. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ asks the song. Apparently not: a worrying proportion of youngsters, when asked, could not name the child in the manger or his parents.
You haven’t come to church on Christmas Eve to hear a rant from the pulpit. You’ve come for the same reason that the shepherds left their flocks and the wise men travelled so far: to see what it means, this good news of great joy for all people. And if there’s one thing that strikes us in the Christmas stories, it’s how good news brings not just happiness but a new confidence, because life has meaning again, there is a purpose in things and it’s worth being alive after all. ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’ They were changed by what they had experienced.
We mustn’t be sentimental about the nativity. When Jesus was born, the world was as troubled and insecure as it is today. Nations were in turmoil like they are now. Life was cheap. No-one cared too much about this or any other humble family on a pointless journey. ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ this Infant would say when he grew up. Mary and Joseph had plenty to worry about on Christmas night, for who would give house-room to a mother about to give birth far from home? They were not quite like today’s homeless or asylum keepers yet the story gives us a feeling for them as people who were dependent on the kindness of strangers.
The shepherds, too, were men without security or future, for in their time they were little regarded, a kind of underclass of the ancient world. So in a way, the Christmas story is a gathering of nobodies. The child, the parents, these first witnesses – none of them belonged to places where important people notice and pay attention. Yes, others more rich and powerful would come in time to worship this King, but not yet and not here in this lowly cave. That is St Matthew’s story, not Luke’s.
This is why it’s decidedly odd to fill the nativity scene with celebrities and stars. It just misreads the story. I’ve nothing against Elvis and his blue suede shoes – I wear them myself sometimes - but they don’t belong in a crude manger with ox and ass and swaddling clothes. The stars belong not there but in the night sky where the angels sing ‘glory to God in the highest’. It’s the nameless and ignored to whom the Son of God is first made known. No wonder that the shepherds walk tall as they go back to the fields, for who else in the history of the world has ever seen what they have just seen?
If only we could recapture that nativity! In his poem ‘The Oxen’, Thomas Hardy goes in his imagination to the crib at midnight on Christmas Eve, ‘hoping it might be so’. I think that rings true for many people. Some come to church at Christmas out of childhood nostalgia. But I want to take our motives more seriously than that. I believe there are many who are touched by Christmas, stirred by this story of a new beginning, genuinely longing for the message to be true and for it to make a difference to the world and to our own lives. ‘Hoping it might be so.’
Perhaps the secret is to see ourselves like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds: as ordinary men and women, yes and children too, who have been given the extraordinary privilege of glimpsing a miracle. It takes humility and courage to admit it. If you go to the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, you have to bend low to go down the rough steps and enter the place where by tradition Jesus was born. And the less we think we can bring to that place, the more open we are to what we find there, the more likely we are to see it for what it is: God reaching out to us wanting us to recognise him in the person of the Infant Jesus, welcoming us home.
But glimpse that miracle, surrender your life to it, discover the difference it makes and life is utterly changed. That’s when our hearts are stirred and we begin to walk tall when that great light Isaiah spoke about floods into the darkness because of the one who is born: our Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord. Born for us today – for the world whether it cares or doesn’t care, for each of us whether we know it or not, asking that we say yes to him and give him a home in our hearts.
Perhaps it’s those with nothing to lose who see best into the heart of Christmas: what it means, how it changes everything, how it gives us back our hope. All we have to bring is our simplicity, our hands open and stretched out towards the heart of Love. Let’s give it a go this year. That's Christmas. That's true Nativity 2014-style.
For if this Holy Child can’t touch us this Christmas, what else can?
Durham Cathedral, Christmas Eve 2014. Isaiah 9.2,6,7; Luke 2.8-20.