It must have been around 1964. I was at a junior school on the outskirts of Leicester; Waterleys the school was called. It was coming up to Christmas and the teacher was casting for the nativity play that we were to perform. I wasn’t much of an actor and so I think that I was given a non-speaking part, a shepherd. The carpet shop in the village had been asked to lend the model sheep that they had in the window advertising their wool carpets. Another animal had been obtained – it looked like a dog but woolly like a sheep. A teacher must have run up the costumes I assume. I don’t remember much about it – but I do have a photograph of the three shepherds and there’s me in the middle.
I assume my mother was there for the production, but I’m not sure. But I’m glad that I have the evidence that I played my part in a nativity play at some stage.
Telling the story of the birth of Jesus is an important thing that we do at Christmas, often muddling up the gospel accounts, squeezing them together into a coherent narrative though not a scripturally accurate one. We embellish the story by filling in the gaps, adding our own reflections and own feelings. But however we tell the story, simply relating it, acting it out, drawing it, recreating it in the nativity set at home, it remains a story of people, of characters, of the ones that children are asked to play in their church or school nativity.
In the office at the Cathedral are baskets full of props – tea towels for the headdresses of the shepherds, halos for angels, crowns for kings, three cuddly lambs, a splendid star to carry, a baby to place in a crib. The props will define the characters and on Christmas Eve as the Cathedral is packed out with children and their families every one will be eager to play their part.
It’s right that we concentrate on the dramatis personæ because this is a human story touched by the divine. The nativity is all about an ordinary event in the life of a family made extraordinary by the intervention of God. Its ordinariness and its extraordinariness is what fascinates and captivates us. But the human characters enable us to enter in and as we act it out it becomes even more real for us.
So as we approach Christmas, in the final few days I want us to enter the real lives that we encounter in the story of the nativity and see the events through their eyes, so that our own view of Christmas is enhanced. Each day there will be a new character to meet, a new story to hear and for a few minutes we can, through imagination and prayer, be with that person, and God can be with us.
draw us to your Son,
to that place of nativity
where we can kneel and adore,
for the Lord is his name.