For many of us, nativity plays are an important part of our preparations for Christmas. One play which I saw some years ago sticks in my mind, because it was different from any others I’d seen before: the play was set not in a stable but in the backyard of the local pub – this was before the days of plush beer gardens (so it was a pretty basic by today’s standards) and it was set in our own time, with actors who were dressed not as traditional shepherds but as modern day workmen and women, wearing mucky overalls and scuffed boots.
That way of re-enacting the birth of Jesus wasn’t at all what I was used to. It was different, and it took me by surprise. But there was still enough about it to feel familiar to me: the scene was round the back of a pub, but it was an English pub. The actors were polite, white middle class British people who looked and sounded much like me.
I’ve spent most of my ministry preaching that the details of the first Christmas were unimportant, that it didn’t matter that Jesus was born two thousand years ago, or that it happened thousands of miles away in Palestine rather than here in England. What mattered about the birth of Jesus was that it happened at all.
While I still believe all that is true, I realise now that those details really do matter, because they remind us that the birth of Jesus is not something ordinary and every day, but that God is to be found in places that you and I might not be familiar with, and among people who look different and sound different and think differently from us.
In a world often characterised by fear of those who are different from us, that’s a lot to take on board; but in the message given to the shepherds by the angels that first Christmas night, we hear the beginning of an answer to all our deep down worries and concerns:‘Be not afraid, I bring you news of great joy which will come to all people; … you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…’
Jesus is God’s gift of love to the world, and there is no room for fear in love. May God’s love and his peace be yours this Christmas.