Mind the Gap – the hidden sadness in the nativity stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dark side to Christmas. My friend Andy wrote a very moving article reflecting on what this Christmas would be like for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve also just read the book Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann where she explores what it means to meet God in the darkest moments of life. At my placement church in Leeds there are many people who visit each week to collect food from the foodbank and there are others who have fled their countries and live here in fear. All of this has combined to make me think again about the message of Christmas and what this season of joy might mean to these different people.

When we read the bible, it is sometimes the things that are not said that can be significant. We are fortunate that our gospel writers wrote very intentionally – their versions of the life of Christ and the early Christians weren’t written on the back of an envelope – they were carefully crafted. If you look closely at the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke there is quite a lot of hidden sadness.

  • In Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message Gabriel brought her, she said ‘yes’ to shame, to ostracism in her community, to the risk of losing Joseph. Imagine for a moment what her pregnancy must have been like for her.
  • Joseph is compelled by the hated occupying forces to take his heavily pregnant fiancee all the way to Bethlehem just for his name to be registered – presumably so that the Romans can leech even more from his people. Joseph, in agreeing to stay with Mary, must have attracted some comments as well from his village – everyone would have assumed he was the father of the child.
  • The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, on the outskirts of the city being kept there both physically and metaphorically by wider society. What hardship had they encountered in their lives and what would have carried on after they had met Jesus?
  • The wise men had to change all their plans after meeting Jesus, they had to go home by a different, probably dangerous, possibly costly route. What would that journey home for them have been like?
  • As we can see, in amongst all the joy is sadness. In the call of God there is both loss and gain.

    I don’t know if this gives me comfort or not. I guess it does because if it wasn’t there, I don’t think I could believe the story – it wouldn’t feel real.

    I got irritated in Waterstone’s yesterday looking in the so-called Religion section. There, next to the bibles was AC Grayling’s alternative to the bible ‘The Good Book’. A cursory glance at it immediately spoke to me of emptiness. The reason the bible is the ultimate Good Book is because it contains the disturbing reality of human life – not a sanitised version of what we think it ought to be. I think I’d rather have the warts and all version of how God deals with people than someone’s lofty ideas of how life should be. This is the amazing mystery we celebrate at Christmas, that in our confused and often sad lives, Jesus still chooses to come and be present to us, in the dirt, whilst others whisper about the inappropriateness of it all.

    Immanuel. God with us.

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