Do you have a crèche scene, a little manger in your home? I am always struck at the ones people have on their lawns, the scene looks so peaceful, so pastoral, so calm and familiar. And yet the story itself was intended to be exactly the opposite. The author of Luke-Acts wanted to surprise his audience, not give them more of the familiar. Here are some surprises to note:
1) The birth of Jesus was a surprise to Mary: “Why me”, she asked when the angel announced that she would give birth to the Son of God.
2) The birth of Jesus was a surprise to Joseph. “What’s my fiancee been up to”, he asked, after the news of her pregnancy became known.
3) It wasn’t what the Jewish people were expecting. The child wasn’t born at the right time – everyone was convinced that prophecy had ceased in Israel for a couple of hundred years, so it was clearly the wrong time for the Messiah to be born.
4) The child didn’t come from the right place either, whether you count his home town as Bethlehem or Nazareth. As Nathanel remarked in John’s Gospel, the general attitude was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
5) He wasn’t born into the right family. They didn’t have money or political power, or religious influence. His father was a rural carpenter, from the unfashionable end of the country. His mother was an unmarried teenage girl. So how could a child from such a background be the one to save Israel?
If we look at our crèche scenes there is little hint of the surprise, the scandal, the shock, of this tale of birth. I am always struck by the fact that all of the characters look so well dressed, so upstanding, so well-presented…just like us! In particular the shepherd vocation was a dirty one and those who fulfilled this role were considered some of the seediest people in the community. Shepherds were not even permitted to be witnesses in a legal proceeding. Their truthfulness was always in question.
Which brings me to the baby Jesus in the crèche. Of all the great books I have read about the crèche none is more powerful than Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus. The slim work is based on a family story McCourt’s mother Angela told the famous author told her son about her upbringing.
The setting is a different time, a time in Europe when poverty was common and the church was the centre of the community’s life. McCourt’s mother Angela is a six-year-old girl and she cannot accept that the baby Jesus at St. Joseph’s church can remain there over night when the temperature is so frosty. So she devises a way to smuggle him home and warm him. In Frank McCourt's hands, however, the story opens a child's view onto a vast world that takes scant notice of her, where “people passing by were not in the mood to be looking at a little girl carrying something white in the dark,” and where she is considered too young to have anything of interest to say, even at home.
Angela has a child’s innocence. She cannot believe the baby Jesus is as stiff as he is, after all he looks so full of life, pudgy around the cheeks with a wide smile. Angela is sorry for the other characters in the crèche scene as they will spend the evening without the one who has brought them to this moment. But nonetheless Angela takes the baby Jesus home to her own bed. But of course Angela’s mother and brother discover what she has done and she is forced to take baby Jesus back to the church and give it to the Priest.
The story ends with this dialogue: “The walked up the aisle and when they arrived at the altar rail the priest took the Baby Jesus from Little Angela’s mother. He handed the Baby Jesus to Little Angela and guided her to the crib. You can put him back in his little crib now, he said in a low gentle way. But he will be cold, said Little Angela. Ah no, said Father Creagh. When we’re not here his mother makes sure he’s nice and warm. Are you sure? I am. When she put the Baby Jesus back in the crib, he smiled the way he always did and held out his arms to the world”
I think that is both the most comforting and the most surprising part of the story, that the Baby Jesus holds his arms out to the world. I find that is what Christmas is really all about.