I attended my last ever Whitfield Nativity Play a couple of weeks ago. It was great, as it always is. We had a barn-owl, a whale, a fox, a couple of deer, a horse. Angels, of course, a Mary, Joseph, sheep and a star. Curiously, whenever I’ve been to a nativity play (and I have been to a lot), there is a character for every child in the school to play: no-one gets left out. And I can still remember being demoted from leading wise man to third shepherd because I hadn’t properly learned my lines when I was about eight. Which character would you be, then? When you were little, you wanted to be Mary, if you were a girl; or Joseph if you were a boy. The starring parts: much sought-after on casting day of course! Many are the school nativity plays up and down the country which have somehow contrived to have two Marys or three Josephs. As a teacher, being creative in your interpretation of the story is much easier than staunching the tears of disappointment that so readily flow: in some schools, parents have come to blows over casting the nativity play!
Would you identify so closely with Mary or Joseph now, though? Giving birth in a stable in a strange town, with no mother to help, and no modern medical care to support? How frightening would that be? When the children perform the Christmas story, the details of the actual birth are always mercifully sketchy and pain-free.
Taking responsibility for travelling with a heavily pregnant Mary? In the nativity play, the donkey is always well-behaved; the search for the stable tolerably brief; the anxiety dispelled by knowing how the story ends. As adults, we work out the painful reality implied by the brief gospel accounts. We identify rather less with the principal characters in the Christmas drama.
If you can’t be Mary or Joseph when you are young, being Gabriel is the next best part. Gabriel gets the biggest wings! As adults, we no longer think of ourselves as angels. Angels seem to embody innocence and perfection. We’ve lost the one, and we’re wise enough not to imagine ourselves capable of the other. Yet the word ‘angel’ simply means messenger. You don’t actually need the wings or the halo, the innocence or the perfection. One of life’s joys is to be the bearer of good news: an engagement, a birth, a promotion, a reconciliation. There is no better news to bear than the Christmas story.
Could you see yourself as a shepherd, then? Ordinary working people, shepherds. A bit disreputable, perhaps; a bit notorious for living life close to the edge, if not actually on it. But for the most part, dedicated, hard-working. They’re not particularly religious, because with the work they do, they don’t have time for all that stuff which religious people get up to.
But to shepherds, the angels come; bringing glad tidings of great joy. And the shepherds are caught up in wonder at such news, and that it should be revealed to such as them. So much so, that they rush off to Bethlehem, presumably leaving the sheep in their charge on the fell side. That’s going to need some explaining tomorrow! Could you wish yourself wrenched out of your routine by miraculous messengers? Could you wish yourself the recipient of such great glad tidings? Unexpectedly receiving something wonderful, disturbing, life-changing?
Or could you see yourself as a magus, a sage from the east, pondering what the portent in the sky might mean, and betting your life that it does mean something? For with your gifts of intellect and your skills of observation, you’ve reasoned that something special is about to take place. So far, so what? Now, you must either forget about it, or commit; to an unlikely and uncertain quest. So that you have to journey, possibly further than you have ever journeyed, so convinced are you that your search could succeed, and that the signs you discern do point to something special.
If not a mage, then the inn-keeper perhaps. Disturbed as the night draws on, despite your busyness, despite your tiredness. You can’t do much, but you offer what hospitality you can when confronted by the couple at your door. Honestly, the difficulties people get themselves into! Who would not make sure of a roof over their heads if their baby were about to be born? Who would not take care, with such a precious charge? They are really not your problem, but you do what you can; and what you can do is evidently more than others have done. Then do you produce a meal from somewhere, even though the chef has cleaned down the kitchen for the night and gone home? Do you send a boy to summon the midwife, once the need for her becomes obvious?
And now we’re thinking ourselves into some of the characters implied by the story, rather than explicitly directed onto the stage. Children are rarely cast as these sort of extras: they usually swell the heavenly host of angels, or flesh out the flocks of sheep and herds of camels. You can even have several more than three wise men, if push comes to shove. And push usually does come to shove on a small stage.
But it’s reasonable to assume that a midwife is summoned, for instance. And if so, how does she feel? Does she miss the significance of it all, bowed down as she is by budget cuts and Quality Care Commissioners, targets and paperwork? Or will she recall, years later, that strangest of nights, when she was called out to attend a stranger from the north. Such a young mother, such a long night, such a beautiful baby!
You might even identify with our narrators, Matthew and Luke. Forty years or more in the future, they try to piece the narrative together, and make sense of the reports that they’ve collected and the stories they’ve been told. They’ve visited perhaps. They’ve asked questions, they’ve tried to separate fact from fiction, because they want to set down the truth. Do they wish they had room to write more? Like them, you might want to know the truth of what really happened, and what such truth might mean for you.
The one character in the story that we don’t identify with, of course, is Jesus: the central character; the star of the show. Very occasionally, in a nativity play, a real live baby-brother is drafted in; but few new parents are prepared to entrust their joy and delight to a six-year-old big sister playing Mary on the stage, however earnestly she promises not to drop him accidentally.
So Jesus is usually a doll. Stiff, and silent; but manageable, predictable. And not likely to suffer life-threatening injury if he somehow ends up on the floor. Few of us crave powerlessness and vulnerability: these are what we’ve spent a lifetime growing out of. None of us claims divinity, which is unmanageable, unpredictable. And from our vantage point of years, we know what will happen thirty-three years beyond the Christmas story.
But the whole point of the Christmas drama, is not that we identify with Jesus, but that he identifies with us. Coming among us, in order to know from the inside what it is to be human. To cut through the excuses, yes; but also to understand and experience the difficulties, the pains, the losses. There is comfort to be had from this greatest of stories: it is the story of God taking all our hard stories into himself. But Jesus identifies with us, comes among us, because life can also be wonderful, joyous, enriching; and it needs to be shared, and it needs to be celebrated.
© Jon Russell 2019