The truths that no Christmas card company would dare touch

A pregnant teenager and a family of asylum-seekers are the characters of the carols

"SILENT NIGHT" is one of the most atmospheric of carols. In spite of being synthesised and piped to death around shopping malls, it still has the power to send a tingle up the spine when heard in the candlelit stillness of a midnight service.

Tonight, streams of people will make their way from pub to church, complementing one Christmas spirit with another, for a service that is rapidly becoming more popular than Christmas Day.

Yet, for many, going through the doors of a church is like entering another world. The carols and the readings take you back in time. But they tell a story that has timeless themes. Mary, an unmarried pregnant teenager, faces a bleak future. Joseph rescues her by means of a hasty marriage. The baby is born in difficult circumstances, which are made worse by the murdering of hundreds of local children. The family is forced to flee the country and seek asylum elsewhere. The fact that this child turns out to be the Son of God does not immunise him or them from the dangers of life.

A pregnant teenager, abused children, a family of asylum-seekers - these are the characters of the ancient carols. But I doubt that they would ever get through the marketing department of a Christmas card company. Not even charities that espouse these causes would dare risk their lucrative sales by using such cruel images. But that's the story of Christmas. To celebrate the birth of Jesus with merry cards is as wide of the mark as remembering the massacre of Dunblane with a celebrity party captured in a photo-shoot by a glossy magazine.

It's the cruelty that makes the story so real and modern. Cynics have always cast doubt on the historical reliability of the Nativity stories. But the fantasy belongs to the commercial hype, not to the original story. Even the episode of angels visiting the shepherds has a ring of truth about it. In the first century shepherds were notorious for fiddling the books - selling a few of their boss's sheep and blaming the wolves of the night. So bad was their reputation that they weren't allowed to give evidence in a court of law. Why would Luke, so keen to get his gospel accepted by sceptics, make up such a line if it didn't have its root in fact? In today's world it would be like angels making the announcement to a convention of used-car salesmen. Shepherds had the same problem. In fact, God sending his messengers to such a bunch of outsiders and social outcasts was exactly the message he wanted to get over to the world. There's nobody beyond the pale. Shepherds, used-car salesmen, pregnant teenagers, the abused and the abuser, asylum seekers, all lie within the circumference of his love.

This is disconcerting for us who prefer to put people into boxes. We like to give everybody a category. Then you're either in or out. Social exclusion is not a new phenomenon. All the signs of the first Christmas are that God commits himself to a grand plan of social inclusion.

A pregnant teenager? In. A distrusted shepherd? In. An anxious asylum seeker? In. Even the distinguished strangers from the East come bringing a message of inclusiveness along with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are the first to worship Jesus. Foreigners and Orientals are in the vanguard to acknowledge the worth of this Jewish child. It is significant that this episode is recorded exclusively by Matthew. He is at pains to point out at every turn that Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Jewish prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Matthew wanted to convince his own that Jesus was the Messiah and seems to shoot himself in the foot by relating that the primary witnesses to his birth were not kosher Jews but Orientals.

Again, it's difficult to know why this was put in if it did not happen, for it added nothing to Matthew's case. Yet even though it may have been difficult for his readers to accept, this episode of the Nativity shows the God of Abraham and Moses using people beyond traditional and territorial boundaries. He is, after all, a God without frontiers. Dieu sans frontieres.

As Jesus grew up and embarked on his public ministry he was forever undermining and subverting the categories that made people feel safe. His practice of including those who were excluded made him look like a walking, personified Social Inclusion Unit. You name it and he included it.

A leper, whose rotting flesh barred him from the community, he touched with the silky grace of Diana. A prostitute, whose sexuality was seized by money not love, he allowed to touch his own body. A Samaritan, who to his audience had all the kudos of an American in Iraq, he saluted for his compassion. An tax inspector, filthy rich from exacting and extracting money from his own people to fill the coffers of a despised and occupying dictatorship, he befriended. Is it any wonder that they could not cope with this subversive and unpredictable mercy venturer? The only way they could handle him was to manhandle him on to a cross. In all their dealings with him and through all their questioning of him as to who was in or out of God's Kingdom, included or excluded, they could not nail him down, so they nailed his body to wood to silence the questions with which he answered theirs.

It disturbed them that forgiveness was the word that was often on his lips. It was always in his heart. He could call a spade a spade and Herod a fox and religious leaders hypocrites. He could preach hell-fire with all the vim of Ian Paisley. But he could never hide that gut-wrenching compassion that always embraced the outsider. There was nobody beyond the pale of God's love. The least, the last and the lost - these were his priority,

To save them was his mission. That's why he was born into this world. That's what his name, "Jesus", means: "God saves". He rescues the outsider, the outcast, the excluded. He also exposes the truth that we're all both agents and victims of exclusion through what we say and do to one another. We all need rescuing. That's why the Christmas story of God's grand plan of inclusion acted out in Jesus Christ is good news; not just for a pregnant teenager and an asylum-seeking family, but for all the world on this silent and holy night.

Silent night! Holy night!

Son of God, love's pure light;

Radiant beams thy holy face

With the dawn of saving grace,

Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,

Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?