Tonight and tomorrow, millions of people will gather in churches to tell each other a truly subversive story.
They will tell of a baby born to a semi-homeless family living under a viciously oppressive regime. They will declare that the mother’s husband was not the baby’s father; this was a very unconventional family. They will tell of how the puppet ruler of the area was so frightened by this obscure baby that he killed all the children in the town to try to get rid of him.
They will add stories about visits to the child from migrant travellers, who foiled the king’s attempts to hunt down the baby. They will say that the child was visited also by people whose work was looked down on, but to whom God chose to reveal the news of the birth.
In many countries throughout history, and in some today, the authorities have tried to suppress Christians telling these stories to each other. After all, they challenge authority, monarchy, national loyalty and family values.
Over time, the people with power have become more subtle and effective in their methods. They have found it much easier to tell these stories themselves, repeating them so often that they become familiar and disconnected from the realities of life, death, power and politics today. Some of us can be quite comfortable with this. We can enjoy the stories, but not the challenge they bring to our lives. Even those of us want to change the society we live in can still cling on to the comfort of familiarity.
No king, no dictator, no burner of books has ever suppressed the Christian message as well as those who have domesticated Christianity. Turning subversion into a fluffy story is much more effective than banning it.
At times, we glimpse the transformative potential of Christmas. On Christmas Day ninety-nine years ago, German troops on the Western Front displayed a sign reading “We no fight. You no fight.” The British responded in kind, and the opposing soldiers were soon shaking hands and playing football. The authorities on both sides responded by criminalising such behaviour to make sure it didn’t happen again. If people realise that they are fighting people who are just the same as them, they might decide that there are better causes to fight for, and better ways to fight for them. If the troops had gone on playing football into Boxing Day, they might have stopped the war.
The baby we’re talking about this week grew up, despite the king’s murderous intention. He continued to be in conflict with authority. He welcomed and challenged all whom he encountered. He declared his solidarity with the poor and marginalised, while offering just as much love to the rich and powerful as he called on them to repent. He spoke of the kingdom of God, a revolutionary notion in an empire whose emperor expected to be worshipped. He was executed after a rigged trial by the local rulers, helped by the collusion of religious leaders. Some of us have faith that the oppressive powers could not hold him and that God raised him from the dead to continue to lead and liberate us.
That really is something worth celebrating. Merry Christmas.