I was sitting down to write my traditional Christmas monologue and I realised I never got round to posting the last few year’s, so here’s one from 2013:
A glimpse behind the scenes at Christmas…
We all know the Christmas story. Very well, almost too well. But there was once a time when it wasn’t known at all. When it actually happened, I expect most of it passed people by. The whole thing was a bit of a secret operation on God’s part, after all – putting himself behind enemy lines, so to speak. I wonder if even the hosts of heaven really knew what was going on. Perhaps we might imagine an angel, not one of the important ones, not Gabriel or Michael or anyone, someone fairly junior. Would he really know what was going on? I’m sure they’d all know something was happening – I mean, the second person of the Trinity goes missing for 9 months and you can’t expect it to go unnoticed. But the whole plan must have been so secret, and so unlikely, that I imagine this angel, let’s call him Theodosius, wouldn’t really be able to puzzle it out.
We might imagine Theodosius sitting with his friends sharing news (I’m sure angels don’t gossip, so we’ll call it sharing news).
“What could he be doing?” one might say “It must be something very important, to have taken so long.”
“Perhaps he’s making something new? After all, the Word was a key part of creation, wasn’t he? Maybe this is creation part 2 or something?”
“But surely we’d see if something that big was happening?”
“But the archangels have been acting a bit funny, haven’t they?”
“How do you mean? I know Gabriel went off on that top-secret mission and would never say anything about it, but that was almost a year ago now.”
“No, they keep doing reconnaissance flights over Galilee when they think no-one is watching.”
“Over Galilee? That’s odd. You’d think if there was anything important happening then it would be in Jerusalem, at the Temple.”
“Shhh. Here he comes now.”
“Yes, Mr Gabriel, sir? A special mission, needs the heavenly host out in force? Absolutely. We’ll just get our harps… and… oh. Not me? Right. There’s another little job for me to do? Oh, ok? Should I get my harp too? Am I singing to someone? No. My sword, then, do I need to fight someone? No. Right, then. I should get my best robes on though, yes? Just so I look my best? Oh. No-one’s going to see me. I see. No, no, of course that’s fine, sir. We each have our jobs to do, don’t we? Right. I’ll get right to it. Thank you, sir.”
Some time later we might imagine Theodosius sitting on the roof of a ramshackle stable at the back of a down-market inn at the less desireable end of Bethlehem. Somewhere below him there’s a dirty young girl giving birth while her fiancée hovers anxiously with a lamp. They’ve just arrived in town, late, after a long journey. Theodosius had encouraged an innkeeper to take pity on them and offer them the stable to stay in. He’d still charged them an extortionate amount for it, but frankly the man wouldn’t have offered anything if he hadn’t had his indifference massaged a bit. Theodosius looked out to the hillside. All but invisible to mortal eyes, a vast choir of angels was surrounding a group of shepherds. It was going to be the most incredible show of force by the heavenly host in centuries. And Theodosius was missing it. Angels don’t get jealous. But he was sad that he couldn’t be with his friends and experience it for himself.
He heard a sudden silence below him, then the cry of a newborn baby. He was glad it had ended well for them. It wasn’t their fault they’d had to travel when she was heavily pregnant. The Romans ordered people around as they pleased. The little people without wealth or privilege to protect them always got the rough end of the deal. They’d be lucky to make it through their lives without some sort of tragedy befalling them. And they seemed a nice enough couple. A little underlying tension about the baby, he thought, but they seemed to genuinely love each other.
There was a blaze of glorious light from the hillside and he could faintly hear the great hymns of praise the angels were offering up. But that was all. He couldn’t make out the words. He sighed, and settled back on the roof. They’d tell him all about it later, he was sure. Why these shepherds were so important, what it was they’d had to announce to them. He’d been surprised when he realised that that was what the mission was about, he had to admit. Shepherds were not the sort of people he’d expect to have an angelic visitation. Notoriously vulgar and lacking in religious devotion – their job meant they could never make it to festivals or the synagogue on a Sabbath. Still, David had been a shepherd when he was anointed to be King, and these were shepherds of Bethlehem, David’s own town. Who knows, maybe this was the calling of a new prophet, or even a new king? It wasn’t quite as impressive to have helped a young couple find a room for the night, but as he’d said to Gabriel, they all had their jobs to do. And his couldn’t always be the glamorous one.
The light went out, and the choir dispersed. Theodosius smiled. It was wonderful just to have seen it from a distance. He wondered how much longer he needed to stay before he could get back and talk with the others. The couple had found somewhere safe to stay and the baby had been safely born. There really wasn’t much more for him to do. He drifted down through the rafters and looked down on the baby. They’d put some fresh straw in a manger and put the child in it as a makeshift bed. He seemed healthy. A very ordinary baby, with parents to love him. A new beginning for them. A small, everyday miracle. It lacked the glamour of the angelic choir, but it was something new being brought into the world. He found the smile was still on his lips, despite the smell of the stable. His work was done. And strangely, he didn’t feel as disappointed as he’d thought he might have been to have missed all the excitement on the hillside.
He let himself rise up again, through the rafters, into the night air. The shepherds seemed to be heading back into town, singing their own praises to God. Whatever had happened tonight, it was big, he could sense it.
He’d expected that the hall would be full of excited chatter – the normal post-flight buzz, only more so, after all they’d not been out in force for such a long time. He never expected that they would all be silent, expectant, waiting for him to come back. All his questions about the message to the shepherds died on his lips as he entered.
“Theodosius has returned!” Gabriel shouted, and the hall erupted in cheers. “The baby has been born! God himself has been born as a human being!”
For a moment, Theodosius’ mind went blank. He found himself replaying the evening’s events in his head. The couple, stumbling wearily up the road. The desperate search for somewhere to stay. The young woman going into labour. The baby being born. The baby. He remembered looking down at the child’s face. Remembered how he had felt. This is how creation starts again. With God right in the middle of it. How could he have missed it? How could anyone miss it? For a second he felt ashamed: he had been there and hadn’t even realised it, but then the enormity of it hit him: he had been there. He felt the smile on his lips again that he’d had when he looked at the baby. The choir had started singing again. And this time, Theodosius joined in.