In November 2008, the primary school where my son was a pupil sent me a disturbing letter. “Dear Mr Perry. Your child is an animal… at this year’s nativity play. He will be playing the role of Pig.” Bearing in mind that law-abiding first century Palestinian folk did not eat pigs, or keep pigs, or even touch them – that must have been one of the safest pigs in history.
This was the same school, but not the same year, that the wise men brought gifts for Jesus. Unfortunately, one of the wise men unwrapped the gift he was supposed to hand on to the baby Jesus, while he was queuing outside the stable, was disappointed with the contents and so attempted to grab the frankincense off the other miniature wise man. A full on fisticuffs broke out on stage.
Different school, different year. When Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn in Bethlehem. And for some reason, when they asked the innkeeper if he had a room for the night – he replied ‘yes’. With razor sharp 8 year old intuition, Joseph popped his head round the door, said, “we’re not staying in this dump. Come on Mary, Let’s go to the stable.” (Much to the parents’ horror, the word he used was not actually dump was not actually dump)!
Of course, these little departures from the script can seem like mistakes. But I suspect the reason they work, is that they are more realistic than the traditional nativity scene we have all imagined. According to the historical documents, there is a slightly different story.
The holy family were probably not signing into Bethlehem’s Travelodge, but most likely staying in a relative’s house, so weren’t really in a position to leave a strongly worded 1 star review on Trip Advisor. Where on earth a place like Bethlehem was going to house three kings is beyond me – but it’s okay, because there were no kings, it was only three wise men, from modern day Iraq. And as for the shepherds – these people were the least trustworthy folk in the entirety of the known world, the first century equivalent of estate agents. There is an irony that these dodgy sock-washing nocturnal sheep-herders were selected by angels to be the prime witnesses of all that was to happen that night in Bethlehem.
The real point of the nativity scene is that it reflects that the great God of glory, Lord of heaven and earth, the CEO of the multiverse, becomes human in the midst of the humblest, starkest, roughest, bleakest echelons of human society. He came to peasant tradesmen, in a political backwater, of an occupied province under imperial rule. He was born into the grim realities of conflict, distrust, indifference, harshness, and hostility.
The messed up world, where the script has been abandoned, turmoil is the norm and the future is bleak – that is precisely point in time and space where the God of heaven and earth makes himself at home. That’s Christmas – God-with-us. God with Us, as we really are, and where we really are.