This first thing to say is that we’re not actually sure how much of what we know as the nativity story actually happened like that. Mark & John, weren’t interested in Jesus’ early life and the traditional nativity scene is a combination of Matthew & Luke with a bit of liberal imagination; but then the nativity story has never been essential to the truth that an ordinary child was born to ordinary parents in Palestine 2000 years ago, and that the life, death & resurrection of the man this child turned out to be shows us the nature of a loving God. Rabbi Lionel Blue once said of the Old Testament that books were made up of what happened, what people thought ought to have happened and what they thought it all meant. In that sense we’re not sure whether the story is based on a real occurrence – tho Luke is usually thorough in his facts – or whether Matthews and Luke were both doing what was common at the time and filling in a back story to point to the seismic events that happened in Jerusalem in 33AD. Both of them chose different witnesses to illustrate the points they’re trying to make. Luke has the manger and the shepherds whereas Matthew has the three kings or wise men to fit in with ancient prophesy; however, it’s something else from the story that I want to pick up on today and it centres round the donkey.
Now there IS actually no donkey in the gospel stories – though there WERE pictures in my ladybird book as a child :).The point is though that Joseph & Mary are ordinary people. They weren’t rich but neither were they poor – Joseph was a tradesman; and, Mary being pregnant, they probably had the donkey that turns up in our nativity scenes. On foot or on a donkey would have been the standard mode of getting around at the time; and in the context of today’s service that actually made me think about cycling. You see going back to the time between the two words wars cycling in rural area was how people got around. Not cycling for training sessions as I do or for club outings as most of you will, but rather just to get places.
My dad is a retired teacher turned priest in Suffolk and a 98 year old chap he visits surprised him once by saying that his first long cycle ride was as a 14 year old cycling to Leicester to see Cockcroft speak at the Royal Society in about 1930. Now Leicester is 140 miles from where we live in Suffolk. This chap then said that he often used to take in a show in London – and it takes 2hr 45 to DRIVE to the M25; but Dad’s jaw really dropped when he said that his mother used to cycle 50 miles to go dancing in Ipswich and that she expected him to meet her cycling back through the lanes in the dark; but you see this was the first time ordinary people had the means to travel places. In fact when I grew up there in the 70s children still largely cycled to school and some old folks would still cycle into town; and for a cycle in the 1930s read a donkey 2000 odd years ago. The point is that these were ordinary people reacting to unusual but not unheard of events – we’ve all heard of babies being delivered in mid air on a transatlantic flight by assorted unlikely midwives – but made extraordinary by their responses to their situations.
Of course, the most ordinary and yet extraordinary of all is the person that baby grew up to be – Jesus of Nazareth. The carpenter who saw prophecies going back some 600 years as coming to fulfilment in himself; and someone who radically recast the idea of what the anointed one of Israel’s writings would represent – not a liberating, warrior king but someone to epitomised and expressed the love of God to the world around.
So as we think of the baby in the crib let’s think about who and what he represents; and let us, ‘ordinary folks’ all, show God’s love to people who need us. That might be a lonely and miserable neighbour or a colleague from work without friends or an immigrant desperate in this land of plenty. The point is that if the babe in the story is to mean anything other than a nice cuddly image WE ‘ordinary people’ have to make Jesus’ death mean something and we have to make God’s dream of a loving species come true.