The Christmas offensive has been waged well this year. The annunciation from the Church of England is that all ye faithful are coming to church, ecclesiastical pollsters are joyful and triumphant that so many believe in the Virgin Birth and clergy are urging that 'tis the season to bring an end to secular Christmas stamps.
By all accounts the Christmas spirit has taken on a rather imperialistic flavour in recent years. Councils are criticised for failing to call the season by its "proper" name, schools slammed for neglecting nativity plays and even asylum seekers attacked for failing to sing Christmas carols.
But attempts to put Christ back into Christmas through conquest sit uneasily with the political message that lies at the heart of the Christmas story, which challenges those who would seek to dominate and control. According to St Luke's account of the nativity, it's a sentiment that Jesus' mother recognised particularly well.
There is a tendency to think of Mary as a victim – a slightly passive but worthy virgin, chosen to bear the god-child because she has wouldn't hurt a first-century fly. But Mary's response is not one of benign resignation. She celebrates. She bursts into song. And the song she sings is about an end to tyranny and oppression. She anticipates that the powerful will be brought down, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away with nothing. The world will be turned upside down by the baby growing inside her.
The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), as it came to be known, is a profoundly political song of subversion. But it is also entirely in keeping with the tone of the Christmas story. Oppressive Romans are seeking to extend their control and tax the Jewish population through a census. A despotic ruler sees Jesus as a potential threat, and commits a terrible atrocity in his desire to eliminate the risk. Jesus' family become asylum seekers and flee to Egypt. The baby has clearly come to cause trouble – and he subsequently does so for both the religious and political authorities of his day.
It's all a long way from the "Little Lord Jesus", so gentle, meek and mild, he doesn't cry in his manger bed. But Christmas was rebranded long before the existence of "politically correct" councils. In fact there isn't any record of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ celebrating Christmas at all. Following the fourth century conversion of Constantine, Jesus was embarrassing for a church now in bed with the same empire that had put him to death. It has suited both church and state, in assorted alignments for the next 1700 years, to have a romanticised and sentimentalised story, not a subversive one. Even the Magi (wise men) were made into "kings", rewriting history to create a close association with power, rather than a challenge to it.
Mary's song has far more in common with The Red Flag than We Three Kings. But if it makes uncomfortable reading for the Church keen to attract people with a warm, fuzzy message at the one time of year when church attendance seems to actually increase, it is equally challenging for governments.
A few years ago, during the passage of one of the Conservative Government's immigration and asylum bills, an MP from the opposition benches rose to speak in the House of Commons. He began to relate the story of a young unmarried couple. The young girl was pregnant, and they were fleeing a despotic regime. As the story developed, it became clear that this was no ordinary family. He was talking about the Holy Family – a fact that was not lost of the then immigration minister, herself a Catholic, who grew redder by the second as the story unfolded. Then came the final blow. Under the government's proposals, that family, the MP proposed, would not be granted asylum in the UK.
Those who really understand Mary's take on the nativity will realise that Jesus's birth is not just good news for the oppressed, but a threat to all those who seek to restrict and control. It tells us that those who crusade for Christmas will end up losing the very festival they would defend.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article has also appeared on the Guardian Comment-is-Free website, and is reproduced with grateful acknowledgement.