In its late-nineteenth century heyday who could ever have imagined that the Hull branch of the Yorkshire Penny Bank would one day be transformed into a cafe? Surely this would have been unthinkable? Yet it happened. And why not? Victorian commercial interests were pretty hard-nosed and unsentimental at the best of times (think child labour, pollution, long hours for low pay, poor working conditions etc) and economic factors prevailed in the governing capitalist mindset. Emotional attachment to a building did not appear on the balance sheet. For as long as it was a useful and economically viable asset it would be retained, otherwise it could be disposed of and its capital value realised, or the building let.
Christmas should have a similar effect upon Christianity. Once a year we are confronted with the inconvenient truth of God shaking things up, rattling the cage of the status quo, and embarking on something both radically different and out of the control of the existing religious institutions. What happened in Bethlehem was way off the balance sheet of tradition and utterly beyond the budget of restraint and propriety. God was doing what God always does: the outlandish, irrepressible and surprising birth of fresh acts of grace outside the limits of our imagination and preparedness. Inherited church is remarkable in the nativity narratives by its absence. At Christmas God easily sidesteps, shimmies and swerves around the tackles of orthodox and tradition-bound ways of expressing faith in order to reach the goal of lives transformed for good. Religion is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Every year Christmas gifts us this new-minted awareness. And at its very least Christmas is always one-step beyond the church as it is. Strange as it may seem, emotional attachment to buildings or to any of the other paraphernalia of religion does not appear to have an entry on the Christmas ‘good tidings’ balance sheet of grace, whereas the poor, hungry, left-out, exploited and marginalised most certainly do.
Far from consolidating us in our cosily familiar festive celebrations, Christmas chucks us out into the cold of a Bethlehem night to discover afresh how best we might draw near to the warmth of God’s love in Jesus made manifest in the chilly depths of the world’s need. When this penny drops we learn new ways of being divinely hospitable. Anyone for a mocha?