I have spent the past few days trying to imagine what might have really happened on the first Christmas. The Bible tells us less than you might imagine, so your imagination can run riot.
In lots of Nativity Plays I have been to, there is a kindly innkeeper who offers Mary and Joseph a stable at the back when the inn is full. But I wonder if when Joseph went into the Inn to ask for help because Mary was about to give birth, the innkeeper simply told him to get lost and told him he should have thought about it before he got Mary pregnant.
Perhaps there was nobody to help at all, and Mary and Joseph are all alone in a cold cave with no light as Mary’s waters break and she desperately tries to remember what her mum told her would happen and Joseph scared witless tries his very very best not to panic and upset Mary. Then Mary, like a lot of mums who end up giving birth on their own because they do not want anyone to know, somehow gives birth and wonders how to stop her baby crying.
And the story goes on to tell us how just as Mary is looking forward to getting back home and having her mum around her again, she and Joseph and their new baby have to flee for their lives to another country because a ruthless king is determined to kill all the baby boys in the village because he is afraid one of them will grow up and be a threat to him.
Jesus, the Christmas baby, his mum and his dad have it tough – very tough even – from the very moment he is born.
There are a lot of good things happening this Christmas. People running foodbanks tell me again and again about how extraordinarily generous people are. Even with some Foodbanks being three years old, North East people have not got tired of being generous. I know families who are so much looking forward to celebrating the first Christmas with a new child or grandchild. In our region we can be proud to be the fastest growing Region in the UK in 2015 and 2015 saw a near record number of people in work.
But Christmas will be tough for many. Although things are improving, the region still has some of the highest unemployment figures in the country and there will be many who find it difficult to see hope for a job. There will be those who will be literally penniless because of a benefits sanctions policy which still seems to very many to lack compassion and fairness. We know that across the country 15,000 more children will wake up homeless on Christmas morning than did a year ago and locally I have in the past few weeks met a number of young people who will be homeless this Christmas and I have met some too who although they now have somewhere to live and worried that they will be lonely and face a bleak Christmas Day on their own
For me the Christmas story is not about a God who is powerful and sanctions people at will, but a God who knows what it means to have it tough; who knows what it means to be born homeless; who knows what it means to make ridiculous journeys because those in authority says he has to and who at times feels very alone, who knows what it means to be born in a difficult situation.
There is a real sense that Christmas is about the birth of the homeless God.
Christians believe that those who have it tough are always in God’s mind and on his heart and perhaps that means that they ought always to be on our hearts – and not just at Christmas. Of course the proof that they are on our hearts is what we do to support them, and that – like a dog – is not just for Christmas!
Mark, Bishop of Jarrow