The trouble with our favourite things is that we're prone to over-consuming them. That album you loved so much on first play that you listened continuously to it for weeks; the movie you went to see five times at the cinema; that fast food place you can't stop eating at. The trouble is, as something becomes more and more familiar, it increasingly starts to wash over us. We engage with it passively, and slowly the passion of our first encounter diminishes.
So it is, I fear, with certain parts of the Bible. There are some stories in Scripture that draw a huge percentage of our overall focus: the cross and resurrection; the Sermon on the Mount; the classic Old Testament mega-stories. The danger is that instead of reading them as we did the first time, discovering everything new and fresh, our brains rush ahead to remind us of what we already know. I think when we do that, we begin to take extraordinary stories and truth for granted.
And if there's one story of which this is true more than any other, it's the arrival of Jesus into the world. Thanks to years of ritual, routine and school nativity plays, we've naturally lost the ability to truly hear the story of Jesus' first two years on earth. When we hear the Christmas story, we're metaphorically letting it wash around in the background like a Michael Bublé album. This year I want to challenge myself to really engage with the amazing story of Christ's birth. One way to do that is to dislocate some of our preconceptions and try to see things from a different angle.
The infant Jesus is so often played by a plastic doll, so it's hardly surprising that we don't imagine him doing very much. But the fact is that Jesus was fully human, and having enjoyed parenthood a few times over I can testify that babies are far from passive, silent creatures who sit in the corner. Jesus would have defecated. He would have screamed all night when he was teething. He would have got sick, and he would have been sick – everywhere. This stuff isn't flippant; it's the radical reality of the incarnation: God literally becoming one of us. And perhaps the most profound example of all: in the days long before formula bottles, Jesus would have only stayed alive through feeding from Mary. What an extraordinary thought that is: that God himself was only sustained by the milk of a human being. It's an incredible picture of vulnerability.
Most of the story isn't in the story
Some films are faithful to the books on which they're based; others use artistic licence. In the same way, nativity plays are filled with additions and embellishments. As I discussed last Christmas, there are a host of things which we assume are part of the biblical account of Jesus' birth, which actually can't be found in the Bible. There probably wasn't a donkey, an innkeeper, a stable, random animals of a host of visible angels. The wise men weren't kings, there's no evidence there were three of them, and they didn't arrive until about a year later. Apart from that, the average nativity play is entirely factually accurate. Realising this should send us reaching with intrigue for the actual biblical version of events, found in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, to look again at what actually happened to provoke some of the Christmas myths we propagate today.
God in astrology?
Ever noticed that line in Matthew 2 when the Magi say to Herod: 'we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him'(v2)? The star of Jesus is rarely discussed in the festive period, and is usually reduced to the role of lead Christmas tree decoration. Yet unlike so many of the elements of our rituals, the star actually can be found in the Bible text, and it seems that God used it to lead men who had no religious connection to Jesus or Judaism, to come and worship him. Theologians and scholars have suggested that the Magi were part astronomers, part astrologers – men who watched the skies and assigned importance to the movements of the stars. And it seems to me that God used that system, which today most Christians would probably agree is 'unhelpful' and superstitious, and redeemed it in order to bring glory to himself. The star seems to be a reminder that God is so much bigger than the boxes we might try to put him in.
The Middle Eastern refugee narrative
Finally, I won't be the first person to point out the cultural relevance of the latter part of the Christmas story, in the context of a world where so many people find themselves displaced and on the run from barbaric middle-eastern forces. The horrific story of Matthew 2:13-18, where Jesus family take flight to Egypt to escape the murderous king who wants to kill the infant messiah, is a reflection of the modern day reality for many fleeing ISIS, civil war or dangerous political leaders. As we debate the rights and wrongs of rehoming those who seek asylum, any Christian opposing the acceptance of refugees risks perpetrating a terrible irony.
The Jewish Rabbis refer to the Scriptures as 'the gem with a thousand faces' to illustrate the depth of meaning hidden within. The danger at Christmas is that we never turn the gem; instead remaining hypnotised by the same, well-worn interpretations of the story we've held to since we were children. This Christmas then, if you really want to delve into that elusive 'true meaning' that everyone talks about, join me in dismantling some of those preconceptions, and thinking differently about the story.