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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

The Saviour is in the detail

On this Holy Night (I’m writing this on Christmas Eve) lights are going on all over Europe as legislators and bureaucrats work their way through the 2000 pages of dense text which represents the hard-fought UK-EU Brexit agreement. Not the best way to spend Christmas, I would have thought. Certainly this agreement represents a major achievement for these pizza-fuelled negotiators over just 11 months and during this paralysing pandemic. But as ever, in any agreement, detail is everything. You can’t just rapidly scroll down pages of text and click “I agree.” So it is far too early to make an assured appraisal of the final accord and certainly to accept the political spin through which either party would claim victory. No doubt some pedant will discover a surprise in some insignificant detail of huge importance. It was a French novelist who gave us “the devil is in the detail” but Gustave Flaubert, to use another well-worn cliché, certainly hits this particular nail on the head. Thankfully the writers of the Bible for the most part eschew detail. Of course there are those long passages in the earlier part of the Old Testament spelling out laws for living along with building specs for the tabernacle/temple. Also we see mind-blowing detail in the various “beget” passages. Strange then that the New Testament begins with such a passage of how Jesus is descended from Abraham through three segments each of 14 people – but that’s just 17 verses. But by and large – and certainly in the New Testament – the writers take a minimalist approach, only going into detail on a need-to-know basis. They omit much of what we would want to know. Not least, what did Jesus do for the first 30 years of his life (apart from those three days when he was just 12 years old)? When it comes to Christmas Day itself, only one writer gives us any information. Matthew tells us what happened several months earlier and several months later but on the nativity of Jesus, nothing. So it’s all down to Luke. And he doesn’t tell us very much about the day itself. Basically he seeks to explain why Jesus was born not in Nazareth but in Bethlehem, four days travel south. He gives us no details on the journey or hardly anything else. Basically, just two verses: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:5f) Notice how the NIV translates the Greek word katalymati as guest room, the same word Luke uses for the room where Jesus hosted his Last Supper. Incidentally he knows the regular word for inn, pandocheion, used in the parable of the Good Samaritan. However, we would translate the word, the point is that there is no back story. The important point Luke is making is whatever the location and whatever may have happened, there was no room for the baby Jesus. However, there is one detail which seems very important for the evangelist. No less than three times he refers to the manger, once here and twice in the narrative with the shepherds. So what is significant about the manger? Certainly today such cattle feeding troughs come under strict legal requirements. However, I haven’t the time nor the will-power to find the relevant EU Directive. For those nerds among you, a good starting point would be Regulation 183/2005 EC. However, I know from an informed source that wooden mangers are illegal in that they could harbour TB bacilli. And that’s the main point, a manger is potentially dangerous – however carefully Joseph would have cleaned it out. People living in a hot climate are alert to the ever- present danger of infection. And a manger speaks not so much of humility but of humiliation. And the way Luke presents this detail suggests that the manger is inherent in God’s plan rather than a frantic fall-back position. For the manger is an anticipation of the whole nature of Jesus’ ministry. As he explains to a would-be disciple, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57f) And if made of wood (it could have been stone), it would suggest the cross. In fact, Biblical scholars have recently begun to explore how passages like this offer allusion. With the swaddling bands, suggesting how Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus with linen cloth (Luke 23:53). Above all the manger of Bethlehem inverts the values of our world. So a quote for this Brexit-themed, pandemic-dominated Christmas from a German who was prepared to worship the babe of Bethlehem, even though it cost him his life “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honour, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger)

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