"THIS will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in
bands of cloth, and lying in a manger."
An infant wrapped in baby clothes was hardly a distinctive sign.
You would have thought that any newborn child would have been
wrapped up well after leaving the warmth of the womb. A baby clad
in bands of cloth would have been of little help to the shepherds
in their search through the streets of Bethlehem for this special
The mark of distinction was not the infant's clothing, but,
rather, the cot in which he lay. A trough. A manger for feeding
livestock. A risky place to put a baby with animals about.
Such a sign would have caught the attention of shepherds. They
knew only too well that nature was "red in tooth and claw". That is
why they spent cold nights on the hills, to protect their sheep
from wolves savagely descending upon their folds.
A newborn baby lying safely in a manger suggested that his
promised uniqueness heralded a new world, in which there would be a
very different relationship between all God's creatures.
The shepherds might have known that picture of the new world
from the prophet Isaiah, where "the wolf shall lie down with the
lamb." Rogues though many of them were, they would have warmed to a
vision that took much of the danger out of their work.
The new world that was coming, Isaiah said, would have a child
in the lead, and see a radically new relationship between the calf
and the lion, the cow and the bear, the nursing child and the
This child in a manger, in an animal's feeding trough, in all
its unusualness, spoke of harmony between all God's creatures. It
was nothing less than a sign of the coming Kingdom. This clue was
given to shepherds who knew first-hand the wildness of nature.
In other ways, they were a surprising choice for this message.
They were disreputable characters, forbidden to act as witnesses in
court. It may be why Jesus never called himself "the shepherd". He
always qualified it. He styled himself "The Good Shepherd", as if
it could not be taken for granted that a shepherd was always
IT IS one of the reasons that I have always been sceptical of
the view that the birth narratives have no basis in history. Why
would you make it up, or include it, if, as St Luke was doing, you
were trying to convince others of the veracity of your accounts of
Jesus's life? Shepherds had no gravitas, or authority, to lend to
the gospel to persuade others.
Not only were these outsiders the early witnesses of the Good
News: they, together with Mary, Joseph, and the Wise Men, gave
expression to the first Christian assembly.
The manger was the first altar to bear the body of Christ, and
Mary was the first person to minister to the body of Christ. The
Wise Men, shepherds, Joseph, and Mary were the first to hear, and
give voice to the worship of Christ. So perhaps it was Christmas
rather than Pentecost that made the beginnings of the Christian
Church. The birth of Christ giving birth to the Church.
This fragile congregation was missionary from the start. Mary
treasured all that she had experienced for future disclosure.
The Wise Men bore witness to Herod, but, with dove-like
innocence, cloaked in serpentine wisdom, they soon learnt not to
cast their pearls before swine, and gave him a wide berth on their
return from the manger.
The shepherds went on their way with a contagion of
But no sooner had this first celebration of Christmas lost its
starlit wonder than this infant Church began to learn the paradox
of the life of a faith centred on Christ.
The nativity is a story of intervention. Mary, Joseph, the
shepherds, and the Wise Men all experienced it differently. God
invaded their worlds. This microcosm of humanity found the course
of their lives altered for ever, a symbol of God's predictable
commitment to his creation, and of his unpredictable moments of
THE question that might have bothered them, and that lingers
today, is why God intervened to save the world, but stood back from
staying the hand of Herod's murderous soldiers as they took the
sword to innocent children. This is the question that people of
Christian faith have wrestled with constantly.
Faith is like a piece of string that disappears up into the
clouds and tugs occasionally. There are times of spiritual intimacy
when, through silence or sacrament, through nature or fellowship,
we sense the presence of God. Then there can follow long periods of
alienation, when spiritual intimacy gives way to distance, doubt,
and even despair, not least when cries for God to intervene go
There is new despair in the air at what is unfolding in the
Middle East, once such a theatre of God's intervention. The place
where the Church was born is rapidly becoming the graveyard of
Christianity. We look on as helpless as the mothers of the
Innocents. As Islamic State holds a knife to the throats of
humanitarian workers, and rapes and slaughters Christians, people
have pleaded and prayed, but to no avail.
But this is not a new scenario in the history of Christianity.
One of the first to put Christians to the sword was Saul. In case
we skate over the brutality of his aggression, we should remember
that his acts were as violent and as merciless as those of the
After his conversion to Christ, and years later, at the end of a
letter he wrote to Christians in Rome, Paul gave a clue to his
change of heart. He wrote of two relatives "who were in Christ
before I was". Presumably Junias and Andronicus, when they saw
their cousin murdering their Christian brothers and sisters, sought
to love him and pray for him. It is what our Lord told us to do to
PERHAPS it is too uncomfortable a thought for Christmas, but a
universal campaign to pray for Jihadi John and his comrades, that
love would conquer their hearts, would be in the spirit of the
Early Church. It is the only intervention I can think of which
would obviate escalation. Such an intervention would be consonant
with the example of Paul, who did more than any other to establish
the Church in the Mediterranean world.
Those angels who sent shepherds searching for a sign sang them
on their way, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth
This was the theme that the Christ-child would one day take up,
and make the centrepiece of his universal prayer: "Your will be
done on earth as it is in heaven." It is a petition for the
earthing of heaven: a new world, where the relationships between
all God's creatures will be transformed towards peace in the
reunification of earth and heaven.
In Bethlehem, "The House of Bread", the first Church turned a
feeding stall into an altar, on which was laid the body of Christ.
It was a sign for their times, and for ours. In our Christmas
eucharist, we feed on him in our hearts by faith with
The Rt Revd James Jones was formerly the Bishop of
Liverpool, and now advises the Home Secretary on Hillsborough, and
Waitrose on corporate social responsibility.