I wonder if any story is more familiar to us than the story of the Nativity. Every year it is played out in school halls, and told again in church and out of church. We hear it in carols, from the supermarket to the high street, we see it on our Christmas cards. For at least a month of the year the story is everywhere, too much everywhere, in fact, along with all its associated subplots, from snowmen to reindeer, from treetop fairies to Father Christmasses. Yes, a great deal of it is tacky and tedious and commercial, and there is indeed rather too much of it.
But listen to the story. It is essentially about peace and goodwill. And few would argue in our world today that they are not needed and impor- tant. The trouble is that the story is told and echoed so often that the details of it, its plot, pass us by. We have heard them before. Through endless repetition, a lifetime of it, the story and its message can become dulled.
So it was for me a few years ago when I was at the carol service in our village church of St James in Iddesleigh in Devon. Sometimes they ask me to read one of the nine lessons. So there I was standing at the lectern reading yet again the story of the shepherds. And I found myself really listening to the story, not simply speaking the words and trying not to make a mistake. And what I heard suddenly did not make any sense. Let me explain.
So the angel and his heavenly chorus appear to these shepherds on the hillside guarding their sheep. Well, of course they were sore afraid.
Then the angel tells them to go to Bethlehem lickety-split because this baby has been born in a stable, the saviour of the world, the prince of peace. All they have to do is follow the eastern star. And they go just like that? Excuse me, I thought, that can’t be right. These are shep- herds, farmers. I know shepherds and farmers, I’ve been a bit of one myself. There is no way in a million years that shepherds would just leave their sheep, especially in a country where there were jackals and wolves on the prowl.
But I wanted to believe this story, to make it believable. Even as I was up there at the lectern I determined to try to do that. Tell it again, your way, I thought. I had done this often enough with stories of old. I could do it again, even with this iconic story so full of religious and universal significance.
Yes, the shepherds would have to leave, I thought, but if they did they would leave some- one behind to look after the sheep. The youngest of them, the shepherd boy. So he is left there on his own with the sheep, while the others go off to Bethlehem!
Of course it’s not fair, and the little boy says as much, loudly, shouts it out into the night sky. At which point the angel comes floating back down again, on angel wings, and agrees with him. He will fly him there, to Bethlehem, he says, and leave his heavenly chorus of angels to look after the sheep.
Like the original, it is a heartwarming story that gives us hope, whether we are believers or not. And there is a great truth at its core, that love really is all we need. It is Christmas, after all. Have a happy one.
On Angel Wings Christmas Eve 4.15pm BBC1