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Icon of the month: Nativity

Stephen Tomkins

'Nativity' simply means 'birth', of course, so what does it tell us that out of all the people to whom it has happened, the word only refers to Jesus's? Perhaps that the church is uniquely associated with unnecessarily long words, but I prefer to think it's that this birth has captured the imagination of our culture like no other, and has still not let go.

It is a story with a life of its own. The version that is told by Sunday school plays and Christmas cards has come a long way from the Gospels, picking up hitchhikers including a donkey, three kings and several innkeepers, along the way. The coming together of shepherds, magi and angels owes more to its own picturesqueness than it does to the Bible. 

Going back to the Gospels from this familiar form of the story can be a bit disorienting. Even the 'biblical' version of the  story doesn't really exist in the Bible: you have to splice together Matthew and Luke to make it. Taken separately they tell entirely different (though not necessarily contradictory) stories, the only overlap between them being the virgin birth in Bethlehem, and the couple's names. In fact, it's debatable whether Matthew even has a nativity story, as he jumps, with shocking disregard, straight from the prediction of the birth to 'after Jesus was born…'. 

Add to this the fact that the other two Gospels don't even mention the nativity, and neither do the 21 letters of the apostles, and it becomes clear that the first Christians had very little Christmas spirit, apparently only thinking to dig up the facts when they came to write the first biographies. 


Going back to the Gospels also raises the question of whether we have changed the tone of the story. Our manger scene is warm and enchanting, as are Luke's words when read in the KJB by candlelight. But the reality of having to put a newborn baby in a trough because you have no roof over your head can't be on many expectant mothers' birth plans.

And then, what is Joseph doing trying to get rooms in an inn anyway? Luke tells us he is returning to his family's town, but in such a hospitable culture how can they find no bed for a young woman on the point of child birth? Could it be that the rest of the family are not quite so understanding as Joseph about Mary's condition, that this is an unwanted pregnancy and an unwanted mother? If so, the contemporary equivalent to Luke's story is the Messiah being born to a teenager in a car park. 

It's enough to make you turn to Matthew for some proper festive cheer - if only those stars and dreams and precious gifts weren't spoiled by political paranoia and genocide. 

Worst of all, on going back to the Gospels it is not immediately clear that we have one of the world's  great stories, or even a particularly good one. The dialogue is minimal, characterization is non-existent, and the plot is: virgin birth foretold, virgin birth happens, baby receives visitors.  

What is it then that has made this the best known of all Christian stories? Like all the great myths, it has a power that is hard to put your finger on. But at the centre of it is a birth, the most universal and forgettable of all experiences, and yet miraculous. 

A new life always comes with mind-boggling potential, and usually with hope. This particular new life is swaddled in the political hopes of an ancient oppressed people, in the knowledge that he will become the extraordinary figure of the Gospel stories, and in the promise of a saviour for all the world. It brings our own personal hopes and fears together with the idea that humanity itself can be transformed. In flesh, in a trough, in rejection, in homelessness, in hopelessness, in hope, in celebration, in candlelit carols, God is with us.



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