This Christmas is going to be a difficult one for many Scots. A time of continued austerity and hardship with low wages and poor job security and working conditions. The commercial story of Christmas sets a high asking price for many of us. It is a sad irony that a story of transformative, radical peace bursting fourth in difficult circumstances has become a mainstream, mainstay that excludes the vulnerable and the marginal. Christmas can and should be a better resource for our society at this time.
Yes there’s a miraculous birth, a dazzling light show and exotic interlopers but when it comes down to it, the events of the nativity make for a very human story. It must have made for some pretty gritty stuff that you can imagine was full of pain, confusion, sweat, blood, dirt and tears. The central characters are a young couple struggling against the odds, victims of a tempestuous political environment and an unforgiving social structure just trying to survive. Miles away from home with no roof over their head, you can picture the dust of the road, the chill of the night air and Joseph’s tight embrace of Mary as he looks over her shoulder desperately searching for somewhere they can spend the night. There are no carol singers, no turkeys, no games of charades – just two young people against the world. You can hear Bruce Springsteen’s big-hearted lyrics blasting out from the soundtrack…
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy, we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when we’re going to get to that place
Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun
But until then tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
The original Christmas narrative is exciting – but not the excitement of a new Android or of the cousins from Vancouver making it over – it’s the excitement of a hero and a heroine fighting to stay alive in very earthy circumstances. The Christmas story is actually quite gutsy and romantic. I’m suggesting that instead of associating it with ethereal hymns and idyllic pastoral scenes of livestock, we for a moment, associate it with Joseph in jeans and a baseball cap stubbing out his cigarette in a takeaway coffee cup by the interstate. I like to think of the Christmas story being a bit rougher round the edges then we’ve got comfortable with. Mary in jeggings and an old hoody has an incredible angelic encounter but from that point on the reality of her situation would have set in with full force. It must have been difficult as well as rewarding. Mary did not suddenly and painlessly gave birth to Jesus. Jesus was born a human and we can only assume he had the intense birth experience we all have. The uprooted couple, like many modern refugees and exiles had to cope with the all too real realities of pregnancy and childbirth on the move.
There’s not a lot of detail in the Christmas story, a lot of the visual information has built up as a conglomeration of various cultural traditions. What there is however, is scope for a vibrant imagination. A lot is said in a few words and plenty of room is left to colour it in. Engaging our imaginations in the evocative gaps and immersing ourselves in the story can help us to approach it in a new way. It reinforces a powerfull message about a God who cares deeply about (as Springsteen would put it) ‘tramps like us’. This story tells us we don’t have to have it all together for God to work in our lives and in fact God delights in finding us exactly where we are and throwing us into the middle of it. God identifies with the vulnerable, the chancers, those holding on for a good thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re on, over or under the breadline, whether you have a stable, dependable lifestyle or any kind of clue at all as to what’s round the corner – God can and will interrupt your life as everything is turned upside down and cling to you as you cling to him.
May the church in Scotland interact and collaborate with other parts of civil society this Christmas to speak more of this compelling message of radical peace in the midst of adversity and struggle. May the church be seen as a resource for society rather than an inert fixture within it. A place where normal, distinct, wonderful people matter. Where individual relationships and experiences matter. The Church can’t just go through the motions, ignore the hurt and suffering. We’ve got to get up and at em.
Because tramps like us
baby we were born to run.