One of the things I most enjoy about my particular calling, is that at this time of year I get to see quite a few Nativity Plays. One year, I think I clocked up as many as five! Nativity Plays in my experience, can be great fun and I’m always extremely impressed by the way teachers find ingenious ways to ensure that every child…. and I mean EVERY child has some part to play.
In fact, one of my fondest memories was the look on a little girl’s face when she saw me coming into school one morning as her class were rehearsing. She ran over to me overflowing with excitement and she said, “I’m going to be a snow-flake!”
But then I recall another occasion; watching a little boy who had been pointed out to me by his teacher. He had come, I was told, from a disturbed and troubled background. One neighbouring school, the teacher said, had already “rejected him”. And this little boy stood out rather like a sore thumb; because whilst all the other children were singing their hearts out, he just stood there. He had every opportunity to join in and to play his part, but he stood there expressionless with his hands in his pockets.
If I might be personal for a moment, my own childhood memory of taking part in a Nativity Play was the time when, aged nine, I was asked to be King Herod. I suspect this was because I was then the tallest and perhaps loudest in the class…! And maybe like me you can also remember the enjoyment (or was it the trauma!) of being on stage for perhaps the first and only time! And perhaps you are still so scarred by the event that, you would dread being asked to do anything similar now, even with a good many years under your belt! So, we might say, “Not for us the joy of being a snowflake… Just head down with hands in our pockets lest we get singled out!”
And all of that would be understandable…. But our Gospel reading invites us to think again, simply because this is what the Gospels DO. When we pay attention to them we soon realise that they have a way of singling us out… Yes, in sometimes uncomfortable ways. Because the Gospels make us think for a moment about what part we’re playing in what we might call God’s unfolding story. So, think for example of that picture of the Shepherds out in the fields around Bethlehem who received some good news; good news of a Saviour….
You see the point is that this news meant that they had to quit what they were doing and get involved in this unfolding story in Bethlehem. They were drawn in…. called up on stage. We can joke about this…. We might say that it’s almost as if they had the singular honour of forming the ‘welcoming committee’ or was it the new King’s guard of honour…? And yes, it might seem at first sight that shepherds were an unlikely choice … But this child of course, would become a shepherd like no other. So, it ‘kind-of’ fits, when you think about it doesn’t it?
But here’s the thing. What this little vignette and indeed the whole of the Christmas story ask of us is a little imagination. So, for example, we might look at the way the shepherds’ experience being called from an ‘at best’ peripheral relationship with things of faith…. to finding themselves right where the action is and think… “Maybe, we think, that’s what this Christmas might be about for me?”
Or, take another example. Maybe our experience of faith is like that of the well-meaning but terribly conventional Joseph…. Remember, he went into ‘melt-down’ over the chaotic wedding arrangements…. But Joseph had yet to discover how the Lord can be present in events over which he himself had no control. That there was grace behind the apparent calamity. It was all very unnerving for him but nonetheless it was an important lesson in faith; and we might think… “That bears an uncanny resemblance to where I am just now….”
But of course, this is just the beginning. In the Gospels, there’s so much more than Christmas… and so much more than a baby! I mean, do you remember the residents of Jerusalem, who flew into a bit of a panic when some wise men turned up claiming that a new King had been born?
I find quite a lot of people are rather like them when we begin to move on from what Jeremy Clarkson calls “BABY Jeezus”. Often, they will metaphorically lash out because they find the grown-up version quite hard to stomach! Which is sad really, because the remainder of the Gospels include a lot more encounters… many more examples of what it’s like to discover our part in God’s story; and this can be both comforting and unnerving at the same time.
So, many of us, for example, can identify with the passionate but impetuous Peter. The one who was nicknamed ‘Rocky’ by Jesus… He discovered his feet of clay when the chips were down … but also wonderfully, the grace of forgiveness.
Some of us warm to the man called Zacchaeus who thought he could keep Jesus at arms-length by sitting in a tree but like the Shepherds he was called closer to the action… In his case, Jesus invited himself to dinner. There’s a thought!
Others again, find comfort and encouragement in some of the more tragic figures in the Gospels… You might recall an excluded woman with a chequered love-life who got into conversation with Jesus at a well and found the forgiveness she craved… Just like that other woman caught in adultery….
Then there’s the deeply disturbed man called Legion, who haunted the village graveyard who found his confusion taken away… or blind Bartimaeus; who through meeting Jesus was able to see where his life was going again.
Or we could think of a thief, hanging on a cross beside Jesus, who with his last breath sought a word of hope. His experience has helped so many find their place in God’s story at the hour of their death.
Or maybe we have a lot in common with St. Paul, who thought he had God and religion all sewn up. Until Jesus disabused him of all of that by knocking him off his horse and setting him on a very different path!
There are simply so many examples one could give… And what I find amazing is that over the years I have met all of these people; these Gospel characters. I have met so many people who have seen their own life mirrored in those who encountered Jesus. In other words, I know people whose lives are filled with such life and expectation because like the little girl thrilled at being a snowflake… they find their lives have coherence because reflecting on the Gospels they find their place in God’s story.
But it’s just so sad, to meet those who feel unable to make this connection; those who as it were, stand on the side-lines with hands in pockets. The great thing you notice about Nativity Plays these days of course is the presence of cameras and the enthusiasm of parents so eager to get a picture of their little Joseph, Mary, Donkey or snowflake. This might be different from the Nativity Plays of our childhood. Perhaps many of us grew up in days when our on-stage antics weren’t recorded… and maybe we’re glad about that!
But if they were to take a picture of you today in a Nativity Play I wonder which character would you be? Which Gospel character do you most identify with?
This, I want to suggest, is a fruitful place to reflect and pray. As you look at the Christmas story… and again more widely, as you read the Gospels… Where do you see yourself? What kind of conversation are you having with the Lord just now? Do you have shall we say, a ‘bit’ part… on the periphery of things? Or a more substantial role… engaged and present to the action? Are you content with your current part? What part would you like… or feel called to? Let your imagination go… speak with Jesus.
And always remember that you are ‘pushing on an open stable door. As the shepherds found, the action of God is always to draw you closer to his heart.