Vicar's Blog ~ December 2019
What a wonderful production the Drama Group put on of Dorothy L Sayers two plays He that should come and Kings in Judea recently.
Described by one member of the audience on the Friday night as ‘nativity plays for adults’ these were great dramas and explored the hidden depths and theological meanings behind the stories of the nativity that we know so well. With sparse props and layout and excellent costumes the Drama Group did a splendid job of bringing these plays into the 21st-century and involving us in the minds and actions of the characters. Sayers’ thoughtful explorations of the side-lines and backgrounds of the Kings (who she cleverly casts as Magi too!), the innkeeper and his wife and others are insightful, human and engaging. And all well-acted too. Another triumph for the Drama Group, and great thanks and praise to Chris Moon and his team for an excellent and thought-provoking presentation.
It is ironic that the Drama Group sometimes struggle to fill the hall with a production that is not so far removed from the Crib Christingle which packs our church twice on Christmas Eve. From long associations with nativity plays and the transitional presentations of the nativity story, even those whose knowledge of the Christian faith is sketchy, have vivid knowledge of Mary and Joseph camping out in an stable because there was no room in the pub, and having given birth, of laying the baby Jesus in a manger: ‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but no crying he makes’. Shepherds abiding in the fields turn up, undoubtedly accompanied by a few sheep and lambs (‘If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb’), followed by three Kings, bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. It all ends with a lovely tableau, with the baby Jesus in the manger as centrepiece. Most nativity plays (if they follow the story at all) follow this pattern, and the crib or nativity scenes that are set up at this time of year present a snapshot of this Biblical family scene in which humans, animals, rich and poor are at one in the glow of incarnational bliss.
Nativity Sets come in all shapes and sizes, life-size with real animals, as St Francis did when he first thought of it in Greccio in 1223, or made of wool, wood, pottery or even waxworks. In December 2004, the famous London tourist attraction Madame Tussaud’s presented a nativity scene with effigies of David and Victoria Beckham as Joseph and Mary, Kylie Minogue as the Angel, Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Magi and actors Hugh Grant, Samuel L. Jackson, and comedian Graham Norton as shepherds. These celebrities had been chosen by popular vote. Neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Vatican were impressed and considered it to be in poor taste, so a spokeswoman for the Madame Tussauds had to apologise stating that the display was intended in the spirit of fun.
What began in Greccio as a serious-minded alternative to distract pilgrims from making a dangerous Christmas pilgrimage to Ottoman-controlled Bethlehem in the thirteenth century, has, for many become something of a fun Christmas toy. In the Holy Land, olive wood nativity sets of various sizes are sold as souvenirs, meanwhile many churches set up Christmas cribs as devotional aids, to help tourists and pilgrims alike translate the Christmas fairy tale into something physical. The fact that a nativity set involves effigies or dolls can equally be confusing, blurring the edges between fact and fiction, and while a nativity set may aid devotion it can also become simply another Christmas decoration, like the fairy on the tree and the yule log in the grate. The figure of Jesus lying in the manger is a cute reminder of the miracle of birth, and of some distant connection between the slightly mythical paraphernalia of the Christmas Season; the Dickensian sense of goodwill and the blend of self indulgent nostalgia and over-indulgent eating that Christmas can so easily become.
The image of the manger as centrepiece of the Crib scene is powerful and profound, and many artists and theologians have identified that the Babe of Bethlehem, God incarnate, who was later to offer himself as spiritual food in the eucharist, the communion of the Last Supper, was laid at birth in a feeding trough. Jesus in the manger is a prefiguring of Jesu a manger; Jesus as spiritual food for the redemption of the world. He is not in the manger to be consumed by the beasts of the field, but to be consumed by sinful humanity, in the spiritual discipline and gift of the offering of himself upon the Cross which is itself symbolised, remembered and resurrected at every service of holy communion in the bread and wine: the body and blood of Christ. The name of the town in which it happened, Bethlehem, means ‘House of Bread’. In the Christmas Crib, as in the guest room in Bethlehem, God offers us spiritual food in Jesus and bids us dine in the heavenly banquet as his invited guest. There we shall feast with Jesus, having spiritually feasted on him in God’s house on earth – the church. Every crib set embodies and presents this great spiritual truth and serves as a connecting reminder that the baby in the manger is one and the same as the man on the cross, and that the human being on the cross is one and the same as almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.