There is something utterly extraordinary that we celebrate today. But it is not, I think, that a baby was once born in a stable. There was a moment in my life, a short while ago, when it suddenly dawned on me that that’s not so very odd at all..
I was on a Christian Aid visit to India and staying in an ordinary home in a village. I was trying to get to sleep after a long but exciting day. I could hear the man of the house snoring through the thin partition wall. But much clearer than him I could hear the sounds of the cattle from the shed that was right up against the bedroom I was sharing with several other people. The cattle were so close that I could hear them breathing…. They were so close I could even distinguish them from each other.. For the whole time of my stay in that household I never noticed any smell from the cows. The moment it was necessary their dung would be collected between two wooden boards and carried away in baskets to be used as fuel. The pressed earth floor of the byre was constantly swept clean and the cows were washed down every day. It struck me that being born in that place would not have been an indignity at all. And it struck me that for most people in the world, living so close to animals, bedding down with cattle, using a manger for a bed would be not be striking or scandalous, but just ordinary. The story of Jesus’ birth, in that setting, seemed just somehow typical of how life is – animals, babies, travellers, all just mixed up and no-one thinking it odd or strange.
The extraordinary part of the story is not the setting at all – but the belief that somehow into this very ordinary and very normal human setting it was God who was coming, God who was being born in human form. Not Romans or Greeks or Jews had ever thought that divinity and humanity could be anything other than different from each other, separated and distinct. The classical gods lived in their own separate world, and Moses knew that he couldn’t even look upon the face of God.. And into that kind of thought world comes the Christian story – and a faith that says that ‘the Word (of God) became flesh and lived among us’ – lived among human beings. The story says not what a shock that a baby could be born in a stable, but that God could be born in human flesh. Where we might think a stable would stink, there were many in the ancient world who thought that human beings all stink, that we’re unworthy to be called holy or sacred… not fit for God…But Christianity says that’s not true – in fact we are all holy, all blessed by God’s touch, all made in the image and likeness of God. The word became flesh to hallow and bless all human life and to show us what has always been true if only we could have seen it, that all people are made in God’s image. What few believed in the ancient world, Christians began to believe… that human life is holy, beautiful, good and full of value and worth. Which meant that no infant, ill or weak, should be exposed on a hillside and left to die, (as any Roman would have done without a second thought), that no person should ever be enslaved to another, that even enemies should be loved and the poor blessed, and that all should be given the worth that God gives all humankind.
After that visit to India, one of the last pieces of work I did for Christian Aid was to write a booklet about Human Rights. Where, you might ask, does such an idea, that all human beings have inherent worth, dignity and value come from? From the Enlightenment?, from the post-war consensus? from what ‘we hold to be self-evident’? None of these. It comes from the Christian faith, from what we celebrate at Christmas – the belief that human flesh is holy, that God has declared it so and made it so by coming to be born among us. Now, in these days and times, this core value of our faith and our culture is under threat. Now, to be a Christian is to bear the responsibility of keeping alive this truth – that the Word became flesh and lived among us – and that all flesh and all humanity is blessed and dignified…
A theologian called Athanasius, from the fourth century, once said of God, ‘He became what we are, that we might become what he is’. Our true dignity, our value and our purpose, is revealed by the story of Christmas. The real wonder of Christmas is not that a baby was born in a stable, but that human flesh was able to carry the presence of God. And that means that all human beings are holy and that all should be revered and treated as such – the hungry children of Yemen, the homeless on our streets, all the people of Syria, Palestinians and Jews, Muslims.. the young, the old… everyone.. Our human dignity, our human rights, originate in the God who made us in God’s image, who inhabited and hallowed our flesh in Jesus, and who continues to cherish and bless each fragment of humanity however frail or wicked or weak.. This is not a failing liberal consensus – it is a theological truth – it is the Gospel of Christmas.
This year we shall need to rise to the challenge of saying what we believe about the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. And we can do that because, as John’s Gospel tells us, ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory’ – and our glory too.. So today, let’s not be too distracted by our rather modern, wealthy and Western surprise about a baby in a stable, but rather hear again what would have surprised the first hearers of this story and smacked them between the eyes – that God became human and lived among us, and made being a human being divine. Amen.