St.Helens R.F.C.'s Chaplain & Welfare Manager Paul Johnson, known affectionately as 'Chappers', delivers his annual festive message to the Saints supporters around the world!
I do love Carols. They paint a beautiful picture of the Christmas season and story. The only issue that I have with them is, I’m not sure how accurate they really are!
Let’s start with the classic, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’. “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, long ago.” Erm, the only problem is that Jesus was most likely born in the Springtime. If the Romans were anything, they were good at taxation! The census, which made Mary and Joseph head to Bethlehem to make sure that they were paying enough tax, would have taken place at a time when people were more likely to travel. Summer – too hot. Winter – too cold and wet. Autumn would leave some people travelling into Winter to get home, so Spring it is. The other reason we know this is that the shepherds were in the fields watching over their flocks at night. That was a Springtime practice.
OK, so the timings were out (as was the year – Jesus was probably born in 4BC, rather than 0), but that doesn’t really change too much. Let’s think about the journey.
“Little donkey, little donkey on the dusty road”. Hang on, check the text, there isn’t any donkey mentioned. It’s quite likely that 9-month pregnant Mary didn’t fancy walking all of the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and she may well have ridden a donkey there, but there isn’t any mentioned.
OK, well at least the neat little wooden stable with shepherds bringing sheep as presents was there. “Once in Royal David’s City, stood a lowly cattle shed.” Ah, no! Talk about feeling rejected. We all remember the Innkeeper from our school nativity, well, he’s not mentioned in the text. The word that we have translated as ‘Inn’, isn’t some kind of Travelodge. Rather it was the ‘Oikos’ or household of Joseph’s extended family. They aren’t turned away from a hotel. They are turned away by their family. Seeing the challenge that they were facing, the Bible tells us that Mary and Joseph are allowed to stay where the animals are kept, which would most likely be a stone basement or cave. The Manger is there – but please don’t imagine a nicely planed one from your school play. A manger is an animal’s feeding trough. It’s dirty, it’s messy.
Surely the ‘We Three King’s of Orient Are’ must show up? Well, some visitors do come from Persia (Iran), but we don’t know how many of them and it certainly wasn’t on the night that Jesus was born. All we know is that three gifts are brought, but we don’t know much of those gifts or by how many people! They probably arrived around 2 years later. How do we know that? Well, King Herod made a horrible decision about the children under the age of 2, in order to get rid of Jesus. Why, well, it was two years after his birth. The Magi (a very well educated, rich community of people) studied the stars and, like astrologers today, they noticed a star rising in the East which, according to their legends, foretold the birth of a King. This set them onto their journey, based on the information that they had from their history – it led them to Bethlehem where Mary, Joseph and Jesus had obviously settled for a little while in the family oikos until Jesus was a bit older.
Why do I tell you these things about the Christmas Story? I think that it is even more remarkable to see the reality of the story, rather than a polished version. Jesus’ birth and early life was a bit of a mess. Maybe you feel like your Christmas is looking messy this year – you’re in good company! God understands what it is to live in a chaotic environment, short of cash, as a refugee when they fled King Herod and feeling like the family home is a place of rejection rather than joy and welcome. Despite, maybe even because of those things, the Christmas Story is truly, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and, what’s more, it really happened! Remarkable!
I want to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Maybe, as we go into this very special time, there is a verse from the very first Carol that we looked at which we can hold on to:
“What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. Yet, what I can I give Him, give my heart.”