Saturday, 24 December 2011

Smelly, Hairy and Covered in Hay

It's the scene every expectant mum looks forward to. The baby - all screwed up like a raisin, sure, but definitely adorable. The husband standing by, awe-struck by the miracle that has happened so many times since a mutant duck-billed platypus or echidna unexpectedly gave up laying eggs. The mother - flushed, exhausted, knowing that the chances are she's made it through probably the most dangerous few hours of her life. From now on in, the risks are going to be on the baby's side, at least for a few years. But for now it's quiet, things are calm, everyone's safe. The surroundings are a bit unusual, sure, but that's to be expected in the circumstances. Everything's as normal as can be.

Except for the shepherds. What every scene of domestic harmony needs, is a bunch of shepherds. Men who spend their lives surrounded by some of the dimmest mammals on the planet. Men who are smelly, hairy, and covered in hay. That's a fine collection of visitors with which to surround your new-born son. And if you're also under the illusion that there's something particularly special about this child, it's even odder.

Why the shepherds first? Why not those nice clean Magi, with their funny gifts? Why not the Bethlehem townswomen's guild, who might have turned up and presented doilies, tea-cosies and oven gloves? Assuming that's what townswomen's guilds do - for all I know they're into abseiling and extreme yo-yo. Why not the Bethlehem Mayor or the local Rabbi? Why some sweaty blokes who smell of sheep?

But then why any of it? Why the birth under an army of occupation? Why the life growing up under governors, tetrarchs, dictators, puppet kings? Why the harassment from the soldiers? Why the mess and the squalor? Why the constant journeying, the struggle, the desertions, the opposition? Why the fingers pointing and the accusation? Why the betrayal, the torture, the death?

Better make the most of the shepherds, Baby Jesus. It may seem unlikely, and you've come a long way down already, but it's all downhill from here.

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