Christmas carols. Love them or hate them (and I will confess, I love singing carols), theologically they contain more dung than comes out of the back end of a donkey and three camels combined. In particular, the sentimental mirroring between Jesus being born in a stable (he wasn’t) and his being ‘born in our hearts today.’
As Andrew Perriman points out, the story the New Testament tells about Jesus is that, having suffered and been vindicated, he is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, having been given authority to judge the nations. When the New Testament speaks of Christ, or the Spirit of Christ, being ‘in us,’ what is being conveyed is this: that we should expect to identify with and share in his vulnerability, his suffering, setting aside any claim to earthly power or privilege. And that famous image from Revelation, of Jesus standing at the door and knocking, is not an image of Jesus knocking at the door of the heart, but at the door of a community of believers.
The good news that the angels proclaim to the shepherds is political in nature, not one of private personal piety. It is this: that the powers that rule over their lives harshly will not continue to do so for ever, for God has acted to save his people. This is worth celebrating.
The not-so-evidently-good news is this: that until what was set in motion in that manger is completed, those who hope in that day must fully associate themselves with all that was done to that child. The warm welcomes, the self-interested demands, the misunderstanding hopes, the false accusations, the abuse, the torture, the taking of his life. But this too is not primarily about the individual but about the community: and the continuation of the good news is that the One who suffered at the hands of powerful men and was vindicated by God is with us; and his presence, by his Spirit, is our guarantee that after we, too, have suffered for and with him, we too will share in his vindication.
One of the things that has struck us as parents is that the stories we think will be too frightening for our children don’t scare them at all; whereas, often, things we imagine they will be fine with, really upset them. We might skirt around the massacre-of-the-innocents, and focus on the Christ-child-as-constant-companion; but children know that tyrants have always killed children, and are more likely to be disturbed by the spirit-baby-implanted-inside-them as curfew monitor: Big Brother is watching you…controlling, not comforting.
Perhaps we need to summon up our own courage, to muck out the steaming midden of sentimentality that surrounds Christmas, and to discover again the story that the Christmas angels tell.