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By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
A Church of England bishop has attacked "sentimental" Christmas card portrayals of the Nativity, saying that Jesus's family were asylum seekers and the three Wise Men were part of an assassination plot.
The Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Keith Sutton, said the shepherds were not the lovable characters depicted in Nativity plays but were on "the fringes of society" and that, for most people, Christmas was a chore.
He ridiculed the "superficial" and "false" images on cards and in songs of "a little helpless baby" whose mother travelled on a "cute donkey" to a stable "stuffed full of cuddly animals".
In fact, he said, Jesus was born to an unmarried mother from a religious family, "with all the cultural and social pressures you can imagine".
The pregnant Mary had to travel long distances on "the most uncomfortable form of transport available". The Wise Men "were on a mission from Herod to discover the whereabouts of the baby Jesus so that he could be killed". Mary and Joseph were forced to flee "as refugees seeking asylum in Egypt, as Herod oversaw the slaughter of innocent babies in an attempt to ensure that the Christ-child was killed".
In his provocative Christmas message, e-mailed to the media, the 67-year-old bishop said that Jesus also became a refugee before being "killed as a convicted criminal".
This showed that God had translated his love for humanity into a costly, physical act.
"That is why we know that the superficial sentimental Christmas of the pop songs and Christmas cards is false," the bishop said.
"How many of us really feel like that at Christmas? If we are brutally honest, Christmas is probably a real chore. For some, it is more than a chore - it is the most painful time of the year."
Urging people do something positive for the lonely and distressed, he said: "For love to be real, it is not the thought that counts but what you do about it."
The bishop, who is due to retire at Easter, is a firm believer in the physical resurrection of Christ.
He is known for his outspoken views and in the past has criticised arms exports to Indonesia and Zimbabwe.
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