GOD IN THE COW SHED
2020 has been dominated by the C word. Not that C word. I mean conspiracy theory.
Several of the most enduring conspiracy theories involve space. Some people believe the moon landings were faked. Others think we’ve been visited by aliens and those who work at Area 51 in Nevada are concealing it. There are some quirky conspiracy theories, like the belief the earth is flat, but others are poisonous, like QAnon.
Maybe we’re hearing more about them now because of the amplifying power of social media and because we are living in an era of anxiety. Conspiracy theories thrive in uncertain times. We should care about this because they represent an assault on truth and frequently pick on minorities; antisemitism is present in many. Conspiracy theories grow because people are afraid and angry and want someone to blame. And it is so easy to retweet a lie when there is no comeback for doing so.
At the same time, there are many who think that history is governed by chaos rather than conspiracy. That the forces at work are random; that there is no hidden hand in events and outcomes cannot be predicted.
In a way, 2020 has brought all this to the surface.
Conspiracies flourish in pandemics, but pandemics also show no-one is really in control.
Which brings us to Christmas.
The birth of Jesus was divinely planned: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. This was no conspiracy. Jewish history was littered with clues leading to Jesus. Micah even prophesied that Bethlehem would be the source.
Anticipating the birth, wise men had travelled from the East. Rejoicing in it, angels had sung in the sky over the hills. Hearing them, the shepherds wandered over to the stable. Discerning the truth, Herod set his heart on murder. So, the birth of Jesus was no conspiracy theory, though it was, in a way, a covert action. A birth hidden to thousands of people scattered across the middle east, but revealed to a smattering of low paid, front line workers turning in a night shift exposed to the stars and, in a moment of transcendence, to the most beautiful press conference ever held.
But the planning was oddly chaotic. The children of kings are usually born in the safest of places, surrounded by the skills of the best. No chance is taken, no quarter given to failure. In contrast, the mother of the Son of God gave birth as a temporarily homeless woman in a cold and dank place, having made a hazardous journey she was in no fit state to make. Unsanitised and unsafe. Giving birth without female support or medical intervention in the political domain of a despotic ruler that placed her family in mortal danger the moment the umbilical cord was cut.
It seems odd, bordering on reckless, for the long-intended Messiah to be born in this way. Are we being told something? I think so.
Life can take a sudden, unexpected, fearful turn for the worse in the blink of an eye. It’s not something we usually dwell on at Christmas. No-one wants that kind of mood music with their plum pudding and minced pies. And so we tend to sentimentalise the stable, making Walt Disney out of a traumatic ordeal. Maybe we’re a bit more open to a different take the year of pandemic.
The true spirit of this festival is found in Mary’s makeshift labour suite. She was cold, exhausted and far away from her family. A faceless bureaucracy set on a people-counting census had deprived her of the security of birth among her wider family. And the state wanted her child dead. An early warning of the emotional cost of bringing the Messiah into the world.
Mary may have been young and inexperienced, but she had already encountered God in a way few in history could claim, and she was wise beyond her years. The God she believed in wasn’t some kind of talisman whom she expected to protect her from every eventuality. He was at his best with his sleeves rolled up, in the grime of a cow shed, acting as midwife to the Messiah. God was attentive in the chaos of the birth, enveloping them in his love through the darkness of the night.
Mary’s story is there for all those whose lives are taking a wrong turning, which includes many more people than would have been true last Christmas. We cannot guarantee that our desires will coincide with God’s purpose in the short term. But he will lead us safely to the place he has prepared for us.
It’s not the birth of a baby in itself. This may be a miracle every time, but it’s what this particular baby was born for. His resurrection after a pitiless death tells us there is a future for us beyond our deaths, a future for this world beyond its decay. One that starts here and now. Hope is not a wishful projection into the future, a finger crossing exercise of high anxiety. It is a dawning in the present day of a coming kingdom of peace and justice.
Our lives may feel as dark and dingy as Mary’s stable right now, but outside the angels are dancing to the song of tomorrow.
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