Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings Nativities – and another opportunity to consider the widening gap between what we custodians of the religious tradition make of it, and what everyone else does. At one school I visited recently, instead of Three Wise Men, Three Nutty Professors presented gifts to God Incarnate. At my first Nativity here in the parish of Finedon, Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior were joined at the crib by Darth Vader. Another time, someone replaced the Baby Jesus in the manger with a plastic velociraptor, which sent quite the wrong message, at least as far as I was concerned.
Yet we insiders, too, keep the story under constant review. My friend Ian Paul, the biblical scholar, caused some discussion recently by arguing in his blog that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable. If you look at the original Greek of the Gospels and compare it with the archeological and historical evidence, the birth was far more likely to have been in a house – domestic space shared with animals – rather than an outbuilding adapted for flexible multipurpose temporary accommodation by the private sector.
Some would consider this moot, arguing that a person who never existed cannot have been born, an idea that has gained currency, according to a recent survey which showed that 40 per cent of those polled believed Jesus was not a historical figure. But nearly all historians of the period, religious and secular, agree that someone called Jesus really was born around then in Galilee, was mixed up with John the Baptist, and was executed by the Romans in Jerusalem.
The significance of that person is endlessly debatable, his existence less so, although I would argue it is highly unlikely that he was born at Bethlehem, a detail that arises from the Jewish people’s expectation of the Messiah rather than Jesus of Nazareth’s CV. The Gospels have theological as well as historical purposes, and were written to show that this person was indeed the fulfilment of prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, as we Christians call it.
Should Christmas card manufacturers therefore pulp their print run and redesign? Should anyone be bothered about historical accuracy in a fable? How many miles daily would a little donkey really travel on a dusty road? To me, these are not pressing questions, but shifting representations of the Holy Family’s domestic arrangements are.
The Nativity is the story of a displaced family in critical need seeking emergency shelter during a housing crisis. In the well-known version, they are shoved round the back of a pub in a sort of lean-to, and I think of those shoddily converted garages let to recent arrivals in the UK, lit by the unearthly light of TVs and PCs rather than wandering stars, visited not by kings but housing officers. In the Bethlehem narrative Christ appears in this ignominious and faintly hostile environment like an extraterrestrial, descended from heaven to Earth on a mission to save us. It is a narrative shaped by earlier traditions, looking not out of the window at an errant celestial body hovering over a stable, but back into Jewish scriptures with a certain poetic licence, and seeing the fulfilment of that hope displayed in this most surprising of arrivals. “Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb,” we sing with enthusiasm, if not always comprehension.
There is something fixed about this, a story that has escaped its context and hangs now on the vertical axis between heaven and Earth. Shift the setting from outside the home to inside, and we rediscover a story of a woman in labour and her bewildered husband, on their travels and in desperate need. Someone takes them in. The salvation of humanity is born not into a cold, indifferent world but welcomed in a stranger’s home.
We were discussing this in the parish the other day as we considered our responses to the refugee crisis. Someone bravely expressed an anxiety felt by many about the appearance in our community of strangers, and how unsettling that might be. “I’m not making any excuses for it, but we’ve never done that before.”
Then another parishioner reminded us that in fact we have, a hundred years ago during the First World War, when Belgian refugees came to Finedon and resettled here. And in the Second World War the Free French came to live at Finedon Hall and also became part of our community, so much so, that, anticipating the entente of these past few weeks, the “Marseillaise” was sung in English every morning at our parish school along with “God Save the King”. French surnames are not unusual here today (and I suspect we are the only parish in rural Northamptonshire with our own artisanal chocolatier).
“Yes, but they were our kind of strangers,” someone said. Our kind of strangers, who worshipped the same God, even if they did so in funny ways, with their butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers fighting alongside ours in Picardy and Normandy. It is harder for many to see an affinity with these new arrivals from farther away, with their different God, and different devotions and different loyalties. Religious differences, recent events again remind us, are among the most intractable of all.
For me, re-examining the Nativity story offers a new way of thinking about my relationship with the rest of the world, about the measures of proximity and distance that I impose on those around me in a way that seems almost arbitrary when suddenly, quite unexpectedly, heaven touches Earth. The swaddled baby, who we preach is God Incarnate, reminds me that the only distance that is significant is the one between us and the one who made us, who calls us into a community that transcends all others. It begins here and now.
Richard Coles is the parish priest of St Mary the Virgin in Finedon, Northamptonshire
This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special