Our nativity set at the west end of the church does, I admit, present a rather sanitised picture of the birth of Our Lord. To get the statues out, I had to excavate a pile of old sacking and hay underneath the Lady Chapel altar, and I’m afraid we needed the rubber gloves on, because it quickly became clear that the resident rodent population had taken occupancy therein, and whatever the rats had been eating for dinner was now covering the tarpaulins in both solid and liquid states. So Jane got the big wheely bin in and we held our breath and chucked the lot of it, while Helena got behind the altar with the Henry hoover. Some gold and red cloth from the art shop round the corner replaced what we had threw away, making what I hope you agree is quite a beautiful little scene - but nobody can deny that the rat-infested rags and hay would have been more true to life.
There is a danger that we are so familiar with St Luke’s beautifully crafted account in the Bible that it can seem rather too clean and cosy, too. The Evangelist wants to draw our attention to God’s glory, replete with angelic visitations and miracles, and rightly so, for the story of Jesus’ birth is the story of God coming to dwell among us in glory, but - we need to remember the circumstances of where that glory was revealed.
I am somewhat unusual among priests in this part of London in that I have actually been present at a birth: that of my own daughter. My wife might not thank me for saying this, and she certainly had the harder end of the bargain, but I can say with certainty that giving birth was not quite as clean and pretty as the biblical account and the charming Nativity scene might suggest - and that’s in a modern hospital with a team of midwives, doctors and nurses, let alone in a grotty animal pen in a cave behind some hovel of an inn in ancient Palestine. It doesn’t take much imagination, and I am not going to paint the picture any more clearly, to realise the sort of scene that the shepherds found when they arrived. And yet it was there they found the glory of God.
St Luke leaves out what Mary made of all this, which is a shame, since his work must be based on her own account: Joseph was most likely dead by the time Luke wrote his Gospel, and I don’t suppose the shepherds or Magi were around to ask questions. Given how my wife felt about receiving visitors even after anaesthetic and all the “mod cons,” I wonder how welcome were those sweaty, hairy guests. And yet, we hear, she treasured what they had to say. She found something of the glory of God there, too.
Mary, Joseph and the shepherds had something in common: they had all seen angels. In each case, they were terrified at these awesome, dreadful visions of God’s glory, almost unbearable to the human mind and eye. And yet, after that blinding glory had passed, they found in in the muck and squalor of a stable: not in the power of the heavenly hosts, but in the weakness of a heaven-sent baby, himself a greater miracle than any of the glorious events which came before.
After the glamour of Christmas has passed, and the tinsel, trees and lights have come down, after the excitement and mystery of our celebrations in church have given way to ordinary time again, we will have to be like Mary, and seek the glory of God in ordinary things: in the legal drop-in, the homeless advice service, the mundane, everyday volunteering in the church; in one another and in service of our neighbours, but especially of the poor. So, enjoy the continuing celebrations of Christmas and the glitz and sparkle of the New Year, but remember where God’s glory really lies.