Meanings of Christmas: The red of the holly berry is not that of Santa's trousers

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"Born is the king of Israel", "Christ is born in Bethlehem", "Christ the babe is Lord of all" - the phrases have been rubbed too smooth by the tongues of a thousand choirs to jolt us. Instead, we glide smoothly along them, and back to the innocent securities of childhood, to Aled Jones and tinsel and mince-pies. We forget that these phrases, in Jesus's time and place, were the slogans of revolution.

That is one reason why we need the whole of Christmastide to unpack their meaning. In the twelve days of Christmas the Church's liturgy is crammed with feasts that emphasise the disturbing nature of such titles. Take, for example, "the King of Israel": Herod the Great could hardly have been expected to welcome a claimant to his own throne. St Matthew's Gospel dramatises the threat from Herod with the story of the slaughter of the innocents, remembered by the Church on 28 December. We know from other sources that Herod was ruthless in destroying his rivals; his victims included his own son.

The title of "Christ" or "Messiah", meaning "the Anointed One", was more explosive still. By Jesus's day pious Jews were expecting a descendant of King David to appear and, by the powerful intervention of God, to restore Israel to a renewal of faith, to political independence, and to lasting peace. When Jesus's parents presented him in the Temple, the elderly Simeon hailed him as the Christ, the salvation of God, a "light for revelation to the gentiles" and "the glory of Israel".

Some, though not all, of the Jews might welcome the Messiah; the Romans would not. We know of several other would-be Messiahs in this period. Most interpreted their role as that of a nationalist military leader; one or two even ruled for a brief time, and proclaimed on the coins that they minted "the Redemption of Israel". Neither they nor their movements survived the swift and savage Roman reprisals.

It was dangerous enough to be associated with Jewish hopes for independence. Yet the early Christians did not stop with the title "Christ". As they reached for ways of expressing the full significance of Jesus's life and death and resurrection, they began also to call him "Lord". In doing so, they simultaneously echoed the Old Testament descriptions of God, and challenged the ambition of the Caesars for rule on earth. St John, whose gospel most clearly identifies Jesus as divine, is given his feast day on 27 December. The story of the wise men from the East, who symbolise the acceptance of Christ's lordship by the non-Jewish world, brings the Christmas season to a close at Epiphany.

The Church celebrates two further saints in Christmas week: Stephen, the first martyr, put to death by scandalised Jews, and Thomas à Becket, who was murdered because he challenged the power of the English king in the name of the Church. It seems that the message could not be clearer: the coming of the Christ is not a cosy, domestic event. The red of the holly berry, as another carol reminds us, is not that of Santa's trousers, but that of blood.

Yet that is not the whole story. In the Catholic calendar of Christmas week there is one day without an important feast, and that is today. Today's gospel returns to what is humble and hidden. It recalls first the widow Anna and her years of patient vigil in the Temple, and then the return of Joseph and his family to Nazareth, before concluding, "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favour of God was upon him." That is all that we know of Jesus's boyhood: no details and no drama.

There were early Christians who invented tales of a little boy with magical powers, making real pigeons out of clay and stretching logs to the size that Joseph needed for his woodwork. Thoughtful believers refused such fantasies. They knew that when Jesus eventually began his ministry he was rejected by local people precisely because he seemed so normal. "Isn't he just the carpenter?" they asked each other.

This Messiah did not come in purple robes at the head of an army. His friends were fishermen, not courtiers; his craft was healing and not warfare. When he preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, he spoke of repentance and reconciliation, not rebellion. Yet those in authority still treated him as an enemy, and with reason. A military Messiah, another would-be ruler of the irritating little kingdom of Israel, could be crushed; the Spirit of God, working patiently through the hidden lives of the generous and gentle, could not. Whatever the short-term success of power politics, in the long run its violence and lies would be defeated by the merciful, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit.

Perhaps we can trust our childhood instincts after all: our true security does lie in innocence. If so, we have yet to realise quite how revolutionary the words of our carols might be.

Margaret Atkins is Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity and All Saints, Leeds