Over the years there has tended to be a mis understanding of the Christmas story. When I w2as at school my teacher explained how she had visited pre-war Palestine and seen mothers place their babies in the manger at the top of the wall, the ‘retaining wall’ between the raised night platform and the ‘work room’ where the animals were stabled at night. She believed that this is where Jesus had been put. Not in a stable, but in a stunningly ordinary place. This is what Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical scholar who lived for many years in traditional Middle Eastern societies also believes. Mary and Joseph were lodged with some distant relatives, not in the ‘spare room’ the place of honour, because that was full, but muddling in with the family.
The instruction to the shepherds to ‘find the baby in the manger’ was so stunningly ordinary. This great vision of angels, the terror of burning seraphs, the announcement of the Messiah, and then the information that the baby is swaddled like every other child, and lying where every other child is. It must have been like finding a sky on fire and the announcement that ‘lo he comes with clouds descending’ only to be told you will find him in a babygrow in a cot in the village.
Years ago I wrote a little piece on this, and because it is Christmas Eve, and because I am reviving this blog at long last, here it is again.
You think you’d LIKE to see an angel, do you? No. Not something to like.
The very fag end of a long, knackering day with the sheep. We were boiling up a bit of gruel on the fire. To this day when I smell gruel burning I feel … it takes me there. Burned porridge, and, – look, I’m not one of your religious types. I’m trying hard to keep this clean, not use bad words.
This thing was there, and yes, we were all s – we were all – This thing was there. Bigger than a house. Burning light. A lot of wings, claws, legs, a terrifying face. Then something like a human shape, wavering like looking at fire. That’s not why I nearly peed myself. Not the claws, not the face. It was a sense – look, I don’t do touchy-feely, woman’s stuff? OK? Don’t do it. But I just wanted to hide. Wanted the ground to swallow me. Found myself thinking of things I’d decided to forget.
And then it spoke. It told us not to be afraid. It was quite clear this was an order. You ever tried to stop being afraid because something terrifying gave you an order? I knew I couldn’t – and it made me even more afraid. And the thing spoke of the Messiah – and we all know what the day of the Messiah is like, don’t we? Fine for you holy bods, sure. People like me? Darkness, that’s what. Threat.
And then the thing told us to go to the village and find the Messiah.
Look it was like the burned porridge. It was so f, flaming ordinary. Not a Messiah like what I expected. Not darkness. A baby, wrapped up just as all little ‘uns are – and lying where busy mothers put them, in the work room, safe in the manger during the day while the beasts are out. It was so – look you don’t expect great masses of flame and when you get them, you don’t expect a message about a baby all safely wrapped up. You just don’t.
And you don’t expect one blooming great mass of fire to turn into countless masses of fire, none of them any smaller, all singing in complex harmonies. I like a song – I’m one they always call on to sing at weddings and the like – you may well think us a rough lot, but we have our songs. And I ain’t never heard the like of this. I can’t tell you what I’d give to take a part in a song like that. A good deal more than I possess – that’s what.
Then an empty hill – well, it seemed empty. Just us, the sheep and the burned out saucepan.