Bethlehem bound

This will be the last of my weekly blogs until after the Feast of the Epiphany. The reason is that I will be doing a daily blog from this coming Wednesday which will be ‘O Sapientia’ and it is from that day that I invite you to journey with me to Bethleham.

It’s been therefore interesting to hear the news about a court in France ordering a local council to dismantle a nativity scene which had been set up in the entrance hall to some public buildings. It seems that secularists objected to this public display of religion in a country in which state and religion are firmly seperated. It has caused what the press are calling ‘The Nativity War’ as it seems that many people want to keep the old traditions of nativity scenes being set up but there is this strong backlash which is being supported in the courts.

An outdoor Nativity scene

An outdoor Nativity scene

I was brought up in a small town on the outskirts of Leicester. I remember the joy we had as children when the evening came when our parents would take us up to see the Christmas lights that had been put up in the grounds of the Council Offices. To our young eyes they seemed magical. Amongst the trees and shrubs there were illuminated Bambi’s and Snow White and her Seven Dwarves – to a young boy it was magical. And at the centre was a nativity scene, lovely statues of the Holy Family and the other characters brought out from the cellars of the Council Offices, dusted off and given a place of honour.

The same was repeated outside the Town Hall in Leicester itself. That crib became the focus for bands and carol singers in the weeks running up to Christmas. I don’t know what Leicester is like now, or Wigston Magna where I grew up, and whether those same crib figures get an airing. But I hope they do.

France has a wonderful traditional of ‘creches’ set up in church and home and community and of a delightful local take on all these things. Visit Provencal, for instance, and you will find ‘Santons’ little clay figures, dressed in the traditional Provencal style who populate the scene around the creche. It’s a powerful visual reminder that the birth of Jesus, for which in these Advent days we wait, took place in the midst of a world getting on with its business.

The secular context was as unwelcoming and unhelpful then as it can be now. That is all part of the situation in which incarnation takes place. That is why I want to defend the right for people to celebrate their faith in public – not just Christians but all faith communities. It is so good to see Diwali lights in Tooting, a Hanukkah menorah in Trafalgar Square. God is always in the midst of the secular, that is what God does and that is where God and the church belong, in the public square, where the people are and not shut safely away behind the closed doors of our temples or mosques or churches or synagogues.

The Hanukkah menorah in Trafalgar Square

The Hanukkah menorah in Trafalgar Square

And now we are Bethlehem Bound. Do make the journey with me. You can follow me by clicking here.

Lord, the stable is waiting
and so are we,
waiting to receive you
as babe of Bethlehem
as Word made flesh
as God with us.

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