I heard a surprising and original connection drawn between the recent UK General Election and Christmas. We were familiar with the anticipated inconvenience of polling station venues being already booked up for nativity plays. But this radio vicar highlighted a less obvious parallel: between the national vote and a Roman census that Luke tells us took place around the time of Jesus’ birth: ‘everyone went to his own town to register’. Though backwater Judaea presumably didn’t face the same problem of absent students.
It got me thinking about other parallels between the election campaign and Christmas. First up, the appeal to ‘little people’. The single greatest factor identified as propelling the Tories to a landslide victory, was their success in toppling the so called ‘red wall’ of historically Labour-voting northern seats. The Tory messaging machine managed to convince swathes of a normally hostile electorate that Boris Johnson was the strong man who would finally deliver Brexit and improve their lot. Many of these new voters live relatively tough lives – low incomes, poverty, possibly food banks. They felt ignored by the urban political elite – their desire for change thwarted.
Judaea in New Testament times was also full of ‘little people’, under the yoke of an oppressive power. The nativity narratives highlight some of them: Joseph and heavily pregnant Mary, struggling to get a roof over their heads; the shepherds – low status night shift workers. Mary’s song of praise following the birth of Jesus – known as the Magnificat – powerfully expresses God’s concern for such individuals. She exults that in his might and mercy he has scattered the proud, filled the hungry and left the rich empty. It’s a radical, revolutionary, upside down manifesto for change, that not even the boldest political one could match.
Second, there’s the appeal to simple, childlike faith. Boris’s persona is cartoonish, and his party’s campaign slogan ‘Get Brexit done’ is now infamous for its cut through clarity – memorably displayed on the front of a digger that Johnson drove through a brick wall, or in his promise of an ‘oven ready’ deal. A message readymade to appeal to a sizeable portion of the electorate with little time for politics. And, of course, it ‘worked’. But Johnson’s relationship with the truth is contested to say the least, and even with the best will in the world, his ability to live up to shiny campaign promises will be sorely tested.
The nativity narratives present an entirely different scenario. Mary and the shepherds respond with simple faith to a word delivered by an angel, and an angelic host. It stretches credulity for the modern mind, though angels are a popular feature of contemporary spirituality. But this is not gullible trust gleaned by a snake oil salesman. The shepherds are initially terrified, not seduced. It’s reminiscent of Beaver’s perception of Aslan in ‘The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe’ – “of course he’s not safe. But he’s good.”
The prime minister is regarded by many as a dangerous liar. CS Lewis hinted that Jesus isn’t ‘safe’ either, while also famously observing that he could be more readily labelled a ‘liar or lunatic’ than a mere respectable teacher – concluding that neither are as likely as ‘Lord’.
Angels, dreams, magi, myrrh… Strange elements abound in the nativity, but when we check our over-zealous critical, questioning faculties and instead allow the narratives to speak for themselves with a receptive heart and imagination… they have power to transport us beyond our everyday perspectives, and reveal a hidden spiritual kingdom. For these are not the mere guardian angels of popular spirituality, but dramatic agents in a far bigger story. A story that’s not domineering or oppressive, as Christianity is sometimes perceived in our post-religious culture, but radically attractive and invitational, revealing God’s coming as a helpless, vulnerable child.
Finally, the election campaign appealed to people’s hopes – for change and improved lives. Mr Johnson may have at least some sincere desire and intention to “repay people’s trust”. But whatever the results, they will still be decidedly temporal. Contrast the awesome expectations expressed in Luke’s gospel, of what Christ would bring: salvation, forgiveness of sins, light for darkness – and true peace. ‘A new hope’, to quote from Star Wars… and a stronger one, since inner, spiritual transformation can empower each of us to be active, engaged citizens, nor just passive consumers.
The Conservative campaign promised to ‘Unleash Britain’s potential’; while the gospel has been compared to a caged lion, needing to be not defended – but released. Faith and hope… for the little people.