It was the day before Christmas and from all over the skies a legion of angels dropped to the streets of Bethlehem. The sound of a golden trumpet bellowed forth. Grumbling and groaning townsfolk rose from their straw beds. They gazed about, sorely troubled by the dazzling brilliance of the heavenly host.
Fierce of mien, archangel Gabriel fixed them with piercing stare. ‘Fear not,’ said he, ‘for we have great tidings to tell – the greatest event in generations is scheduled to happen here tonight. And in preparation, like a sheriff’s posse, we’ve come to clean up this town.’
Gabriel looked askance at his colleague, Michael. ‘Why here? Why now? There is no running water, no power, no proper medical facilities, just a single midwife full of superstition and no sterilising fluid.’
‘I know.’ Michael grumbled, ‘Why couldn’t it have been twenty-first century Bristol? A place well blessed for hospitals, obstetricians and all manner of life-saving technology. But here, now? It is all looking very risky.’
Michael took charge of the legion. Power cleaning began with military precision. The chosen birthing site, a stable, was invaded by an army of brooms and mops. All surfaces were scoured and scrubbed and sanitized. Miraculously, archangel Uriel commandeered a vacuum cleaner, (from a notable proprietary brand) that was bagless, cyclonic in suction and forever fully charged. An air drop of air fresheners was organized for the area.
Uriel was still finding problems. ‘Straw! Straw! How can you clean straw? Why couldn’t he just appear fully grown? They managed it OK in those Greek legends. Athena stepped fully-formed out of Zeus’s forehead – both impressive and practical. This way it is all risk.’
Michael chipped in, ‘My suggestion that Herod be given a strong sedative, while we made quiet use of a well-furnished palace bedroom, was not well received. It is not as if any of the properties round here would ever win a good review on TripAdvisor.’
Gabriel was having issues with the town’s people, who had gone from star-struck to sullen. ‘Right folks, big day tomorrow, best behaviour, please. The stable is just a temporary measure – a special request from the boss. We’ll move him to the inn later. The best bed, mind, the very best.’ He looked fiercely at the innkeeper. ‘And don’t even think about doubling the usual rate – we booked up way in advance, at the fall of humanity, and are due a VERY substantial discount.’
Turning back to the crowd, he continued: ‘Tomorrow will be as quiet as the quietest Sabbath – no drinking, no fighting, no riding young donkeys through the streets and doing hand-brake turns – nothing, nothing, that might attract the attention of the authorities. We do not want Roman soldiers anywhere near this area tomorrow.’
Archangel Michael was running through Disclosure and Barring checks on all visitors invited to greet the new-born child. Things were not going well. Some of the proposed callers were on the index of proscribed jobs – according to local custom shepherds were unclean outcasts. Other visitors were potential asylum seekers – wandering Persian astrologers. Michael grunted ‘What a mess we’ve come to. Not a decent fellow in the place.’
Angels scrubbing out the stables were also grumbling: ‘We’ve practiced that Gloria for ages. The greatest music ever sung and there will be hardly anyone to hear it.’ ‘If all this had been shifted to the twenty-first century we might have got onto X Factor, then we’d get an appreciative audience.’
More angels joined in moaning. ‘The approach is all wrong. First century Palestine – who’s going to do the PR? You aren’t going to find a Martin Sorrell or Charles Saatchi round here.’ ‘There’s no glitz, no glamour – there isn’t even a red carpet.’ ‘And he’s going to be Jewish – that’ll make his life tough. Jews are always the ones everybody else picks on.’ ‘Why couldn’t they have gone for a different nationality? Greek, perhaps, like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – they know a thing or two about the world.’ ‘Or Roman? If you want a conquering hero then you better make him Roman.’
Just then the trumpet blew again. Gabriel thundered: ‘Stop, stop, stop! Put everything back – just as it was when we started. The mess, the dirt, the filthy water, the lice in the straw, the rats, everything. The Lord God wants the world just as it is – no titivating, no Microban, no Botox, no Photoshop. This is not a set – this is for real.
And in the time it took for a pin to drop it was so, the angels were gone and the world was just as it had been. For a moment silence fell upon all the earth. It was as if the whole universe had taken an in-breath. And then the air was rent by the querulous wail of a new born child. The time was now, the risks were high, the game was afoot.
With thanks to Royston Grosvenor for sending me the original ’20th Century Legend of Angels’, which I re-wrote to produce this piece for a carol service.