It looks so cosy in Bethlehem, much like a candle-lit pub in Hackney on a cold, dark December afternoon with hipsters knitting in the corner and the beards so big you can barely get through the doors. It might be snowing outside the stable, but inside Jesus is all aglow and golden – you can almost feel the warmth coming off him. Mary dons a touch of glitter and the lambs are so fluffy you just want them to curl up in bed next to you.
The dirt and blood and tears and sweat have moved out, and now everything looks so much better. Like a place you might actually want to hang out in, not the dive it used to be. I’m so glad Christmas has cleaned up its act.
It’s a pretty awkward story after all; a teenage Mum, an unplanned pregnancy, nowhere to put the baby apart from that thing the animals eat out of. A new family with nothing. A family on the run, unhoused, unwelcome, fleeing from genocide. Think Syrian refugees forced to leave their war-torn homes sheltering in the vast camps of Lebanon and Jordan. Teenagers living in terror of getting dragged into gang violence in East London. Immigrants who’ve used all their savings to get a better life, cramped together on rickety boats in treacherous seas, their lives hanging in the balance. Imagine that as a classically-painted, Italian-Renaissance Christmas card from John Lewis.
Yet, the birth of Christ is that dangerous, shocking and uncomfortable.
Perhaps the gentrification of places once infamous for their poverty and crime is not so far removed from the way that we have romanticised the nativity. We’ve literally shoved the poverty out – or at least put it at the back where it can’t be seen – and reduced it to something accessible, but ultimately shallow. We’ll take the shine, but not the fear; the cleanliness, but avoid the dirt.
It’s easier to distance ourselves from poverty than get acquainted with it. The further we physically remove ourselves, the easier it is just to think that it is something we don’t have to get involved in. We might prefer a cafe that sells Dutch bikes and an artisan bakery in the spot where the council estate used to be; it looks nicer and makes our life simpler .After all, you never used to get good coffee round here. But we’re taking the heart out of the community and denying ourselves the opportunity to be transformed by it.
Clinton cards must have thought their hilarious Christmas cards, which gave ten reasons why Santa Claus must live on a Council estate, would sell like hot cakes. Besides being entirely misguided by listing things like; “He’s never been seen doing any work in his whole life.” They were forced to remove them after complaints on Twitter. The criminalisation and demonisation of those on the edges of society is pervasive. By laughing at them we can distance ourselves, thanking God we are not like them. Tory peer Lady Jenkin didn’t do much better when she claimed that food poverty in this country is because “poor people don’t know how to cook”, which shows just how little some of the establishment know about the thousands queuing at Foodbanks this December.
It’s not just the wise men’s gifts in the nativity that are symbolic and prophetic, it’s the whole scene. It’s the presence of the shepherds, the outcasts of society – not even counted in the census – honoured by being the first to arrive at the birth of the new King; outsiders brought slap bang into the centre of the story. It’s the lack of clothes to give Jesus, the lack of bed for him to lie in, the lack of everything you’d want your firstborn to have. It screams out that this is a God who has come to be one with the lowliest. This is a God who sacrifices everything to come into poverty and give us all that we need.
When Jesus said: “The poor you will always have with you”, he wasn’t saying: “That’s the way it is so you might as well not bother with them”; he was making a statement, an assumption even, that we would always be living with those from the poorest backgrounds – that they would be in our homes and lives, that we wouldn’t push them out to make way for something more glamorous and attractive.
As we reflect on that nativity scene this Christmas, let’s not wipe away the sheer poverty and grittiness of it. Would we be challenged to enter into that poverty ourselves – with the hope that we might just be changed forever by it.