Posted on 10th December 2016
Parents who have withdrawn their child from Religious Education all year were upset when their child wasn’t cast in the nativity play.
I don’t know how that story ended, but it did make me wonder, and carry out a little research. Apparently ‘7.5 million people’, or ‘35% of the population’ (choose your statistic) attend a church service sometime during Advent or Christmas. If you add in school nativity plays, I think that number would probably jump again. There can be a particular poignancy and potency about Christmas plays. It is easier to create a moment of hushed stillness, of awe and wonder, in a nativity play than it is in any other. There is something in the story that most of us recognise and respond to.
Or is it just sentimentalism? The department store advertisements play on our feelings at this time of year. ‘You are not cynics…’ they cry. Although our society can seem extremely cynical at times, there have been various moments this year when collectively people have rejected cynicism. Behind the Queen’s birthday celebrations, behind the support for the ‘ordinary’ folk on Bake-Off, behind the empathy with the suddenly ordinary ‘celebrities’ on Strictly, behind the creation of flood-victim support groups, you can hear the calls of “We believe in our community”. It is probable that for many of us the Brexit / Remain vote was based on a ‘gut reaction’ response – an idealistic desire for a positive community.
What’s this got to do with the nativity play?
In a frantically busy world, we sit down on those hard pews, in the candlelight, and find ourselves pausing for a moment in peace.
In a cynical world we find ourselves celebrating innocence and weakness, and the power of new life.
In a materialistic world, we look at this vulnerable family, and how a series of random interactions supports them. We can all identify with the sudden feeling of community that comes from human beings responding kindly to strangers.
In a ‘modern’ world, this story ties us to our past. It echoes down the ages, and gives us a comforting feeling of community across the world and throughout time.
‘Sentimentalism’ has negative connotations because it can be dangerous and seductive when we’re vulnerable. But it can also be a recognition of our most simple and powerful emotions. With our children we often allow ourselves to be sentimental. We make all sorts of little ritualistic stories to help them learn about growing up. Or is it to help the adults cope with the change? The tooth fairy eases the way from a chubby cheeked toddler to a suddenly long-faced child.
Somehow it’s ok for children to say what adults can’t. They can stand on stage and say “I believe in kindness” “I believe in love” “I believe in light in the darkness”. And the adults cry, because they know about the darkness. And they hope against hope that the children are right.
It’s a hard time of year. So come along to a nativity! It might just give you a giggle, or a tear… It might just help restore your sense of the rightness underlying the chaos.
‘…this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’
U E Fanthorpe