Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nativity chaos isn't so bad

This week brought us a new entrant on the stage of popular theological debate: Netmums alerted the nation to the imminent demise of the "traditional nativity play".  Mums are concerned, or in some cases, disappointed or even disgusted by their children's schools cavalier treatment of the Nativity, at a number of levels. Even those schools which haven't dispensed with it altogether, we learned, subvert the classic form by introducing a range of characters who can only be described as extra-biblical, including Elvis, Alan Sugar, spacemen, "a lobster", and, pushing the definition of "characters" to the limit, recycling bins.

None of which is news to any long-serving parent, especially those of us who had more than one offspring and consequentially sat through a decade or more of school Christmas performances, grinning fixedly at the antics of the fairies, reindeer, and angels in the syncretistic nativity of modern Britain. Nor is it news to any parish priest, who every year invites the children of the community to come on Christmas Eve dressed as "your favourite nativity character", knowing full well that the among the Shepherds and Angels will be Captain America, Tinkerbell, and a number of other characters probably best left un-named.

This, of course, drew the usual responses from the usual places.  "Extreme political correctness or a nation too embarrassed to face up to its Christian heritage", thundered Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance (quoted here). Which is odd, because one of the few things that unites conservative evangelicals and liberal biblical scholars is a dislike of Nativity plays. If we were to accurately reflect the biblical text, shepherds (from Luke) and wise men (from Matthew) would never appear in the same scene, and there certainly wouldn't be a donkey. For clergy and other Christian leaders who are already anxious about this kind of thing, the appearance of premier league footballers and dancing sprouts is bound to cause something close to meltdown.

But it's interesting that the majority of schools actually don't dispense with the Nativity (that is, the birth of Jesus), but instead go with what we might call this "Nativity plus" approach. And, in the end, is it so different from what went before?  The traditional Nativity is cheerfully unbiblical with its eclectic gathering of angels, shepherds, and the ones who may or may not have been Kings. But, far from being a liberal sell-out which needs to be replaced with the biblically correct version, it actually says something important about the incarnation of Jesus. As the boy born to be King lies in the manger, he is worshipped by his own people, but also by heaven (the angels), creation (the animals), and all the nations of the earth (the wise men, who came from beyond Israel). The whole world is invited to gather round the baby Jesus, no-one is excluded, and all the realms of this world, political or cultural, are brought into his Kingdom. In the words of Christina Rossetti:
Come all mankind, come all creation hither,
Come worship Christ together. 
So what's wrong with adding some new characters to the mix?  Everyone's invited to the Nativity. We're always saying we want to communicate the real meaning of Christmas - I can't think of many better ways of doing that than seeing Darth Vader, Wayne Rooney, and the cast of Eastenders kneeling in the muck and straw around the manger. They belong there, with the sheep and the angels, in the world to which Jesus was born, and is born again each Christmas. Come one, come all, there's room for you in the stable.

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