JESUS is born outside, just as he dies outside. The door of the inn closes on the one about to be born; just as the gates of the city close on the one about to die. The opposition of "inside" and "outside" is present throughout the Gospel story. Jesus is never found "inside", where it’s safe and comfortable. He is neither Pharisee nor Sadducee, neither Essene nor Zealot. There is no party to protect him or to promote his cause.
Those who go to him must "go out" to him, forfeiting the security that ordinary human associations — including families — provide. Some households shelter him briefly. Perhaps they try to hold him "inside" to curb his compulsion always to be on his way somewhere else. But the one who, as on this day, "pitched his tent" among us (John 1.14) can never make anywhere his permanent home. The Son of Man, with nowhere to lay his head, is always "outside".
This polarity of outside and inside is starkest in the accounts of his Passion, where Christ outside stands against the scheming inner circles around Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod. Finally, he perishes "outside the camp", in that wasteland where, abandoning all transitory securities, we are summoned to follow him (Hebrews 13.12-13).
This tension between inside and outside is acute in the story of the birth of Jesus. He is born outside, with the despised and rejected, where all must go who are not wanted. The ones inside Luke’s inhospitable inn are those described by John as Christ’s own, his very own who yet do not receive him (Luke 1.11). No doubt it’s warm inside, but Mary and Joseph are left out in the cold.
Christians, at least in the West, have always taken it that Christ was born in winter. Of course, we have no idea at what time of the year he was born. But that he was born "in the bleak mid-winter" is a truth about the nature of his coming, whatever the date of the first Christmas.
It was cold outside, whatever the temperature. R. S. Thomas comments: "The very word Christ has that thin crisp sound so suggestive of frost and snow and the small sheets of ice that crack and splinter under our feet, even as the Host is broken in the priest’s fingers" (Selected Prose, Welsh Poetry Press, 1983). In a late poem, Thomas says of Christmas: "Love knocks with such frosted fingers" (No Truce with the Furies, Bloodaxe Books, 1995).
It’s cold outside. It’s dark, too. We’re told that the shepherds, like Nicodemus, come to Jesus by night, but we do not know whether it was at night that he was born. But, as with the season, so with the hour. Night, like winter, befits his coming. The light shines in the darkness.
The poets understand these things. "While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love." There is a history behind this story — Luke insists on that — but the truth of the nativity is in its poetry, not its prose. Jesus made our nighttime, as he made our winter, his.
Jesus is born outside, and it is outsiders who find their way to him. The shepherds’ home, such as it is, is the hillside, but their outside status is more than a matter of where they live. Shepherds, like the silly sheep they tend, are Sabbath-breakers, and as such are condemned by the pious.
The Magi come to Christ out of the desert. They were never at home in their summer palaces "with the silken girls bringing sherbert" (The Journey of the Magi, T. S. Eliot). Matthew will contrast these pilgrim spirits with the paranoid Herod. Outside, they watch the stars. Inside, he can only watch his back (Matthew 2.1-18).
Where is Christ this Christmas: inside or outside? At St Martin-in-the-Fields, we erected a Christmas crib in "the courts of the temple", in the market by the church, where tourist tat is touted. The curate’s flat, my home for five years, overlooks this market. I looked out of the window one Christmas morning to see that, in the night, the baby Jesus had been turfed out of his crib. In his place, curled up in the straw, was a "rough sleeper", one of London’s homeless.
At midnight mass, we place the figure of the newborn Christ in the crib. We welcome him into our houses of prayer. We ask Jesus in. In some of our churches, his presence inside our four walls continues to be affirmed, long after the crib is taken down. The gentle light in the sanctuary says: "There he is. God is with us."
So has Christ come "inside" at last? If he has, it is only to break down the barriers we still build, in Church and society, between the included and the excluded. The distinction between inside and outside was drawn when Adam was driven out of Eden. Christmas signals its destruction.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’8
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.9
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.10
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2
but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4
having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’?
‘I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son’?6
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’7
Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’8
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom.9
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’10
‘In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;11
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;12
like a cloak you will roll them up,
and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end.’
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2
He was in the beginning with God. 3
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7
He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.