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The familiar Christmas story is revolutionary says David Winter
10:00am Monday 2nd December 2013 in News
David Winter used to work for the BBC and he was a Diocesan Adviser on Evangelism.
A FEATURE of listening to familiar words is that they slowly lose their power to shock or surprise. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it does induce deafness.
It’s especially true of things we hear regularly – and among them, of course, is the story of Christmas.
We’ve been hearing it since we were toddlers, year after year.
We’ve acted it in nativity plays and sung it in carols. Even for those who are not churchgoers, this is one bit of the Christian story which we feel we know. Like an old and comfortable pullover, we slip into it each December and slip out of it again at the New Year.
We think of the familiar Christmas story as reassuring, heart-warming and homely. But in fact it’s disturbing, shocking and revolutionary.
Take, for example, Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus – indeed, try to think of it as though you’ve never heard it before, even though you can probably recite it by heart.
‘There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and lo, an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Fear not; I bring you good tidings of great joy“.
The shepherds, thus rudely awoken from their slumbers, were ‘sore afraid‘, but the angel told them that the long-promised Messiah was to be born that night in the nearby town of Bethlehem, and even invited them to go and visit him.
As a guide to his whereabouts he added: ‘this will be a sign for you.
‘You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.’ That is the literal version of the angelic travel instructions, probably the most spectacular anticlimax in the whole of the Bible.
A ‘feeding trough’? These directions were given to the accompaniment of a massed heavenly choir singing ‘Glory to God in the highest’ and referred, we may note, to the birth of ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’.
And he would be found in a feeding trough. It’s a great tribute to the shepherds’ faith that they nevertheless set off on this strange hunt for a baby.
The reference to the feeding trough (‘manger’ sounds way too cosy for the reality of it) is not just a detail in this story of the shepherds on Christmas night. It is the story.
This is the ‘sign’, as the angel says, and ‘sign’ is a hugely significant word in the Gospels.
Signs are evidence, pointers to profound truth. John’s Gospel calls the miracles of Jesus ‘signs’ which ’revealed his glory’ (John 2:11).
The trough is important. It tells us who Jesus is – not a superstar, not a conquering king, not a starry visitor from another planet, but one of us. Divine, yes – but born human, sucking his thumb in a feeding trough. That is shockingly wonderful.
David Winter’s new book At the End of the Day was published on November 22, price £6.99.
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