A baby in a manger. A Christmas card image that we can almost stop looking at, because it has become so familiar, writes our Rector, Miranda-Threlfall-Holmes:
Yet that image is not just of a cosy domestic scene. It's a picture of God, God's very self, becoming human for us, sharing our physicality and bodiliness, sharing our joys and sorrows, our dreams and desires and frustrations.
This is the scandal of Christianity - God born from a woman's bits, covered in blood and goo. Taboo breaking, Disgusting blasphemy to some. It means our flesh, our very bodiliness, is honoured and declared holy by God.
Christmas means that God isn't just a holy idea, and nor is God just a distant reality, like the Queen in Balmoral.
God is love. It's easy to love a newborn baby - particularly someone else's, that you can give back when it cries. But saying God is love can also sound - well - a bit naff. A bit twee.
Part of the problem is that we use the word love for so many things. I love a nice cup of tea, I love my children, I love watching Strictly, I love my partner, I love God. Love can mean anything, in English, from a mild liking for something small like a cup of tea or a chocolate biscuit, to an earth-shattering passion, and everything in between.
So when we say God is love; love came down at Christmas; God so loved the world; it's easy to hear just that God is loving.
But to say that God IS love isn't to say that God is loving, or lovely, or even lovable.
Love isn't just something God does, one of a range of activities that God might do or emotions that God might feel. Love is what God is.
That means that whenever we feel love - whether for something big or small - we are in touch with God. God is the wondering love we feel at a tiny baby's hand; God is the fierce passion and desire we feel for a sexual partner; God is the sometimes tender, sometimes fierce as a lioness protectiveness we feel for those we love; God is the yearning for the loved one's absence, God is the comfort of the lover’s presence.
Love is vulnerable to being hurt: it's that widening of your own sense of self to include others, increasing your vulnerability. Love is helpless to command love in return, it simply loves and yearns for that love to be reciprocated.
That child in the manger, given the common name Jesus, symbolises for Christians this amazing mystery at the heart of our faith. God desires us, yearns for us, is passionate for us, is prepared to become vulnerable for us, can be hurt by us. Jesus shows us a completely different view of God - of sitting on a throne commanding, as in so many myths and legends, but born as a naked, bloody, baby, in a dusty backwater of the Roman Empire, totally dependent on the breastmilk of a fairly young and inexperienced mother, far from home, for his survival.
The Church of England wedding service always begins with these words:
'God is love, and whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in them.'
Words, incidentally, which every time I say them seem to pose a challenge to the church hierarchy to recognise what the Bible recognises, that God is in the love itself, not a particular historical form of relationship contract!
Jesus' birth shines as a flickering light, a delicate, vulnerable candle flame, in the darkness of a world that can so often seem loveless and cruel. God is love. God lives in you, in all that you love, and in loving, you live in God.
So guard the flame of your loves with a shielding hand. Your loves are precious; they are holy. All our desires, bodily as well as the desiring of our minds, are a shadow of God's passionate yearning for us.
They are the God who is love, who embodies love, and who loves you with a power and passion and desire and tenderness that all our human loves strive towards.
This was Miranda's reflection for the Open Table Carol Service on Sunday 17th December.