This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Later this morning I shall make my way over to Bradford for a carol concert at the Cathedral. Every year the cathedral is packed, but not just with the usual suspects. As every cathedral experiences, the place will bring together people of all ages, a variety of backgrounds, and a range of faiths and cultures. And at the heart of the event will be a common cause: the reality of reconciliation between people of difference in a place of worship of a God who takes us seriously.

This carol concert is just one of those events that forge strong relationships during the good times in order to hold the weight and pressure of the testing times. Here we see a variety of people in an exciting and hopeful city coming together for a short time, but in mutual respect, friendship and – even – love.

I guess this is what is now happening in Glasgow following the tragedy in the centre of the city on Monday. The shock is now giving way to the grief that weeps its way out of the wounds that can’t be avoided. People have died, others are seriously injured, many are suddenly bereaved … and the numbness can no longer protect from a necessary mourning. As it has in the not-so-distant past, Glasgow will no doubt see a coming together of very diverse people, united in pain and loss.

But, as in all such tragedies, some people will look for some order from the chaos – or some sense that defies the apparent meaninglessness of death. But, what is there to say when words seem inadequate?

Christmas provides a unique context in which to bring people together in this way. The carols and readings tell the story of how God comes among us as one of us – not waiting for us to sort it all out. Strip away all the tinsel and shopping and we are left with raw humanity and a Christmas story that is neither romantic nor pain-free. The baby of Bethlehem is born into a land under brutal military occupation in which life is cheap. His birth brings together an unlikely group of people to share the experience and see in this baby the hope they have been longing for. Yet, even the rumour of this birth results in infanticide unleashed by a paranoid King. The family quickly become refugees in a strange land. The baby grows into the man who ends up dead, arms open in embrace for a world that can throw at him what it will, and he won’t throw it back.

Christmas, then, is about God opting right into the mess and injustices of the world as we know it. No exemptions for God – or us. There are no equitable scales of loss: the loss of a loved one changes the world for ever and each loss is unique.

But, our mortality does not have the final word. Even here, we can find ourselves drawn by hope, and not driven by fear.

A couple of years ago I was asked to write a book about the real meaning of Christmas… for people who don’t usually read Christian books. So, I did. The Sunday Telegraph did a piece which caused me enormous grief and an awful lot of media exposure. The headline had me saying that Christmas carols are ‘nonsense’. The rest is history.

After facing a barrage of bile and ridicule from various media and individuals (one email helpfully offered methods by which I might like to take my life as I was now a ‘disgrace to the Church’), I put my case in a post entitled Grumpy Bishop – an accusation levelled at me despite the sheer happiness of the book I had written. Needless to say, none of the journalists or critics had seen the book, let alone read it.

Anyway, we needn’t go over all that ground again – or the debates that raged on this blog about journalistic accuracy. It’s all history. Except that that particular post has had hundreds of new hits in the last couple of weeks. No idea why – perhaps because Christmas is coming again?

But, the book isn’t! You can still order it direct through this blog or from a bookshop or Amazon. It is called Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? and tells the story afresh.

It starts on 1 December, but you can sign up to the Natwivity Census here and now (Facebook and Twitter).

Telling the Christmas story through Advent.

Creative.

Imaginative.

Short.

How predictable! ChurchAds.net comes up with a striking image for the Christmas poster campaign and the responses could have been written before they were given. First, the poster:

As I discovered last December, speak about the reality of the original Christmas events and you invite the piling of ordure on your head. After all, they say, who cares if the Nativity narratives of the Gospels get confused with Cinderella and the pantomime stories? There is something shocking about making the humanity of Jesus too real – sometimes a problem in the Church itself where a spiritualised version of the Messiah is easier to contemplate than one who had to eat, went to the loo, endured the real temptations of young men and got his hands and feet dirty in real muck.

So, this image compels the viewer to consider the reality of the Incarnation in a mode familiar to anyone connected in any way with anyone pregnant. When my daughter-in-law had her scans she texted them over to family and friends. That’s how it’s done and the good news is shared around these days. When we had scans twenty or thirty years ago they were indecipherable to amateurs like me: I couldn’t tell the head from the rear end.

So, what were the predictable responses? Look at the Times article which reported them:

John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, said: “This advertisement sends a powerful message to everyone in Britain where 570 babies are killed every day in the womb, 365 days a year, under the Abortion Act. Whenever we kill an unborn child in an abortion, we are killing Jesus.”

Er… this isn’t an advert for SPUC or the anti-abortion lobby (although they might wish they had thought of it first). And the last sentence is simplistically contentious (although the need for a serious moral debate about mass abortion in the UK is long overdue).

Then we get the ubiquitous Terry Anderson of the miniscule National Secular Society (why is he asked about everything – because he can be guaranteed to miss the point, get irrationally cross and draw the wrong conclusions… which is great for the media):

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, criticised the image. “At first glance it looks like a poster for a horror film — perhaps The Omen VI: He’s Coming to Get You,” he said.“But it is also the kind of image widely used by anti-abortion campaigners and I hope that the Church of England isn’t trying to use its Christmas poster campaign to make a political point. If that’s the intention, we may have questions to ask at the Charity Commission… If, on the other hand, it’s supposed to make a Christian Christmas more appealing to our secular nation, I think it is likely to have the opposite effect.”

Terry! Calm down! This isn’t a Church of England poster campaign. And it isn’t remotely political. So, don’t waste the postage on your letter to the Charity Commission. (But your reaction does reveal again your lazy assumptions and prejudices – clearly not the sole preserve of religious people…) And it is not about abortion – that’s just another lazy connection based on prejudice. As for Terry’s final (subjective) judgement, well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Full marks to Ruth Gledhill for kicking off a good story, but fewer marks for resorting to the usual suspects  for critical comment. It will be interesting to see which Christians stick the boot into the campaign – and on which grounds. But, as in the past, if some people hate it, it’s a sure sign the campaign got it right.

This poster is designed to arrest the attention of the usually disinterested. It is aimed at awakening the imagination, teasing the curiosity and provoking fresh consideration of the heart of Christianity – precisely what Jesus did with parables, images and stories. No, it doesn’t cover all the bases and deal comprehensively with every theological nuance; but it gives a huge kick start to thinking about what Christmas is all about.

And that is needed as much in the Church as outside.

I am in Berlin for a few days with my youngest son – a bit of a boys’ holiday. We managed to escape all the snow in England, but here it is freezing cold, foggy and snowing. It’s fantastic. And, contrary to the UK news media, nobody talks about the weather here – they just get on with it: it is just ‘weather’.

Anyway, we popped into the Berliner Dom yesterday evening so I could show Andy where I preached last September. He was impressed with the whole place and the enormous organ (over 7,200 pipes apparently…). But, while he wandered round looking at things (like the enormous pulpit under the enormous dome) I sat down quietly and looked around. And that is when I had my mini-epiphany.

It’s not great. I just noticed an enormous nativity/crib scene set up in a recess to one side of the ‘sanctuary’. The figures were… er … enormous. But, there was only Jesus, his family and the shepherds (plus, maybe, the odd cow – I can’t remember who else was there). Absent from the scene were the Magi.

Aha, I thought, they will produce them on 6 January and stick them where the now departed shepherds were – and this will prove how biblically and theologically ‘on the button’ the Germans are. But, no – I was wrong. They had gone one further and done something even more imaginative and thoughtful. Look at the photo below (I know it’s a bit dark, but my phone camera doesn’t ‘do’ dark…):

See them? They are on the opposite side of the church, peering out from the distant organ loft and pointing to the nativity scene in the distance. They are on their way, but there is time and space to get over first.

I just thought this was great – and very vivid. The Magi come late, but they are on their way, even if the people at the heart of the action don’t realise it yet.

I wonder if our churches might try this next year: have the Magi on the opposite side of the church through Advent (when they began their journey?) and Christmas – then bring them closer until Epiphany when they replace the shepherds. It’s a thought…

The British National Party is not to everyone’s taste. They also have a knack of having leaders and spokespeople who are clearly not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Playing fast and loose with history is one thing, but mucking about with the Bible is another thing entirely.

Clearly, nothing is sacred to our rather thick right-wingers: re-writing history (the Holocaust is just for starters) takes a certain hard-faced determination, but for Nick Griffin even to attempt to tell the nativity story is bizarre. He obviously heard it when he was a little boy and hasn’t looked at it since he grew up.

Here it is in all its YouTube glory – draw your own conclusion. But, while you are doing so, ask just how stupid you have to be to confuse so many elements, invent others and have the nerve to pretend that the Jesus who grew up would have anything good to say about the worldview of the BNP.

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