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.