The story says that something is happening that will break boundaries and cross frontiers, so that the most unlikely people will find they are looking for the same thing and recognise each other instead of fearing each other. There is something here that draws strangers together. It's what some of the old carols mean by talking about the 'desire of all nations' –as if what human beings really wanted was not revenge, endless cycles of miserable scoring off each other, but being able to stand together in shared astonishment and gratitude – held together not by plans and negotiations but by something quite outside the usual repertoire of human events. By something just inviting us to recognise we're loved – if we could only stop and see it.
The clutching hand of the baby is, for most of us, something we can't resist. The Christmas story outrageously suggests that putting our hand into the clutch of a baby may be the most important thing we can ever do as human beings – a real letting-go of aggression and fear and wanting to make an impression and whatever else is going on in us that keeps us tied up in our struggle and violence.
Even more outrageously, the story suggests that this particular baby, the one born in the outhouse, the one who is rescued at the last moment from a village massacre like the ones that happen so regularly in forgotten civil wars today in Congo or Sudan – this baby is the place where the power of the creator of the universe is completely present. And what on earth might it mean to say that the ultimate power in the universe is more like a baby clutching at us in blind trust than it's like the President's bullet-proof motorcade?
Well, all that is to go a bit beyond the story itself, of course. Christians believe it and not everyone else does. But it still ought to make us think. The fact that this story of defenceless love - even when it's wrapped up in all the bizarre fancy-dress of Christmas as it's developed over the centuries - touches something universal is at the very least a fact that should make us think twice about giving up on the human heart's capacity for goodness and faith, however deeply buried. One-horse open sleighs in South India may be surreal all right; but surreal things can connect us with some surprising realities.