So Greggs’ Bakery is in trouble for substituting a sausage roll for the infant Jesus in a nativity scene, perhaps the indignation expressed will prompt outraged clerics to examine the heresy to which they annually subscribe. Christians concerned about heretical presentations of the nativity might do be better to focus their attention on their own annual nativity plays, the yearly dressing-up in dressing gowns, tea towels and paper crowns.
Church and school nativity plays show little regard for the biblical stories they purport to represent; at best, the performances trivialize the harshness of the story, at worst they reduce it to a farce. The nativity tale found in Saint Luke and Saint Matthew is a grim one and it is a heresy to present it in any other way.
Christians who don’t have some sense of Christmas being horrible haven’t read their Bibles. Look at the story. Look at Saint Luke’s telling of it. The child is born in a place where cattle are fed. Does anyone staging a Nativity Play ever take seriously what it really meant for a teenage girl to give birth to a baby in the midst of mud and dung? Does anyone ever try to imagine the fear and the mess and the blood?
And who turns up? Shepherds. Shepherds were not the nice sort of people one would find in most churches; they were not respectable, they were rough, they were unclean, they would have used bad language, you would have smelled their presence. Where are they to be found in the pretty nativity scenes? How many Christians criticizing Greggs are prepared to include realistic “shepherds”?
And what about Saint Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi? What about King Herod having babies butchered? Do you ever hear that bit when the kids in silk robes and paper crowns are making their appearance while the congregation sings, “We three kings?” They weren’t kings, the Bible doesn’t even say there were three of them. They were the sort of people who would now attract the attention of immigration officials. They were subversive in supporting one who would challenge the established authorities. Where are the subversives in the nativity plays? How many Christians criticizing Greggs have to avoid the authorities, in the way that the Magi do, because they fear being arrested for subversion?
The biggest heretics are those whose nativity scenes deny the reality of the story they say they are proclaiming because that reality is simply too disturbing for them. How many Christians really take the Christmas story with any degree of seriousness?
The Christian nativity scene is a conflation of narratives that have been diluted with large measures of sentimentality and materialism, and not a little untruth. It is heresy in the most literal sense in that it is a matter of choice, it is a choice not to accept the nastiness of what the Bible says. A sausage roll in a nativity scene should be the least of worries for Christians.