“She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. ” Luke 2:6
Perhaps twenty years ago, I read a piece by the Irish-born theologian Joseph Pollard. He reflected on his memories of Christmases in the little Irish village where he grew up. He remembered the excitement and the anticipation of Christmas. He remembered going to church with his parents and kneeling for the Christmas prayers. He remembered the Christmas story: Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem and finding nowhere to stay and being forced to find shelter in a stable where the child Jesus was born.
But Pollard remembers being mystified by one thing: why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? Why be born in a place where there was nowhere to stay and where there were no friendly faces?
Pollard thought about his own little village; there were always lights in the windows; the doors were always open; there were always friendly faces; why hadn’t Jesus been born in a village where he would have been welcomed, instead of in Bethlehem, where he had been left out in a stable?
Such childhood thoughts sound naïve to adult ears, but Pollard’s story carries with it a serious point.
Joseph Pollard’s village was one where Jesus would have been welcome; a village where people held firmly to their old faith. If you had gone to that village today, the scene would have not much changed. The church would still be crowded; last night there would have been lights at the windows to show the Holy Family would be welcome; stand amongst the congregation this morning and there would still be a hand of warmth and friendship. Despite the terrible year it has been, despite the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report, countless thousands of people still hold to the faith of their fathers.
Joseph Pollard’s story, with its innocent simplicity, asks questions about our celebration of Christmas: what is it that we are celebrating in 2009?
Do we celebrate the story of a couple in Bethlehem, or are is our celebration about something altogether different? Is our celebration about consuming large quauntities of food and drink and exchanging gifts which none of us really need? Is our Christmas over with the last mouthful of cold turkey? Is there nothing more to life than food and possessions?
Laugh as we might at the idea that Jesus would be born in an Irish village, there is about it an innocent faith that the church has lost.
In its preservation of itself, in its protection of its own interests, in its promotion of its own influence, in its building up of its own power, the institutional church forgot what it was about. It forgot the poverty of the baby in Bethlehem; it forgot that Jesus was amongst the poor and the marginalised. The celebration of Christmas for most Christians has become little different from the celebration of Christmas by most other people; money spent, weight put on, and not much to show for all the effort.
What is it we celebrate? Is spending more money in a few weeks than many Africans will see in a lifetime something to celebrate? Is eating four times the number of calories we require something to celebrate?
Joseph Pollard’s story asks us about our own faith. Perhaps such childhood sincerity is naïve for the 21st Century, but are we in danger of having gone to the other extreme, of being cynical and dismissive about everything?
Do we sincerely celebrate this day the birth of a child in Palestine 2,000 years ago? Do we celebrate God breaking into history with such faith that we can honestly say he is welcome at our house? The story is the one thing that remains when all the Christmas celebrations are over.
Would our door be open to Jesus?
Do we say that it is a nice story, but that we have busy lives, and so much to do, and we would like to believe it all, but you know how it is; or, like the young Joseph Pollard, dare we offer a plain, simple, innocent welcome to the Son of God?