Advent Firesiders

Art (2005)

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the one Jesus never knew.

What do you picture when somebody talks about poverty in India? If you're highly tuned you might have taken into account the recent earthquake on the Pakistan/Kashmir border; and you might remember that the world's longest glacier is in India; but most people asked to picture rural India would think of blazing sun and dust.

It's a bit like that with the birth of Jesus. True, there is occasionally a touch of frost in Bethlehem and Nazareth but what we have here is the pagan festival of Winter light bundled up with Mr. Pickwick. So if you say "Christmas" or "Nativity", people think of a star in a navy blue sky and snow. Without thinking about it, they also have a completely different set of pictures best described as a Palestine idealised in Italian and Flemish Renaissance painting. So put those two together and ask this question: were those shepherds abiding in the fields sitting in the snow?

Well, of course not because, as we all know now, Jesus was almost certainly born in Spring in one of the hillside caves used as stables.

The picture can be built up from early Spring weather, wind blowing, rain falling, a burned out fire; more likely dead cats than cattle lowing. By Spring straw would have been a luxury so it was probably a raggy sheepskin; a manger, a feeding trough, would almost certainly have been a hole gauged out of the rock formation; and there would have been no way of keeping out the draught.

Then there are the dramatis personae in, as they say, order of appearance: inn keeper, harassed but sympathetic, running something like the Mermaid at Rye with plenty of cosy stables, with cattle powered central heating thrown in; Mary, dressed in an exquisite blue gown; Joseph, like one of those nice monks on THE MONASTERY; Jesus in spotless white swaddle; shepherds, variegated, Tyrolean, rustics with plump little lambs, straight out of Handel; kings kneeling at the manger with Harrods-wrapped gifts.

Well, I have to tell you that the landlord was a scoundrel; Mary was a peasant; Joseph was a casual labourer; the swaddle was grubby; the shepherds were scruffy; the kings were at least a year late.

And who's missing? Herod's unsavoury militia in a permanent state of friction with the decent but loathed regular Roman soldiers, just like it is today in Basra.

Does this matter? Well, I think it does. It matters because the actual birth of Jesus was almost certainly much worse than the renaissance painting fused with Mr. Pickwick's world of snow and coaching inns. To question the picture is to de-mythologise our Saviour, to bring Him back to us as fully human. Put back the politics and the poverty and you will get much closer to Him and the wonder of His humility.