A Christmas message from Bishop Viv

First published 25th December 2019
This Christmas message was originally given as at the Christmas Day Eucharist at Bristol Cathedral 2019.

Earlier this autumn a large media multinational commissioned some audience research into Nativity Play roles as a predictor of future jobs and salaries. So I thought I would try their findings on this congregation:

  • If you were ever an angel (one without a name) or a lamb, you might go into health care with a salary of 20k to 25k.
  • Were you an Angel with name (Gabriel), you would go into marketing and a salary of 40k.
  • If you were ever either Joseph or Mary, then you might enter into finance or retail with a salary of 38k or 39k.
  • Way at the top of the list, with predicted salary of 43k, were the oxen.

But of course there is one very obvious gap. The marketeers did not ask what happened to those who played Jesus. Perhaps that was wise.

In some schools, preparations for the Nativity Play take almost the whole year. I was governor of a school where the first meeting of the play - which included all of our four- to six-year-olds - began in February with a first high-level meeting of the script writers. In October, rehearsals begin in earnest for the December performances. Just imagine the emotional load of all that.

I have also been part of annual Nativities from scratch, performed on Christmas Eve with the help of church volunteers and attended by hundreds of children. No rehearsal, because the story is known well enough. The congregation backing the story and, each year, and providentially, a family from the church community producing a baby to be swaddled in placed in the manger. Sometimes the baby was a girl but we decided God could cope with that.

In both events, there were the familiar scenes of parents comforting the children who werent playing Mary but wanted to; and wardrobe attendants retrieving headdresses and fixing them uncomfortably on heads; and magi leaving their gifts behind; and prompters suggesting there was a indeed a difference between Frankenstein and Frankincense; and, of course, each year the addition of various non scriptural non speaking characters with walk on parts generally including princesses and Spider-Men.

But one year in my last post as Dean of York, I oversaw the Nativity Story acted by adults as part of the great Mystery Play cycle. And I began to understand all this in a new way because I saw on the faces and in the voices of grown ups how this story touches on a wide swathe of human emotion.

The York Mystery cycle is a mash-up of the gospel accounts from Luke and Matthew.

There is Joseph as Matthew described him. Humiliated Joseph. He's betrothed to this young woman and perhaps thinking he's the luckiest man alive: and then he's made to feel a complete fool, and a heartbroken fool and then finds himself protector of a blended family fleeing as refugees.

Then theres Mary with a different personal crisis. Shes pregnant and shes clinging to a unique story of who the father is. Its hard enough finding yourself with an unexpected and unwelcome pregnancy in our own culture. Imagine the Marys fear, in a time when she would expect to be cast out of her community and where stoning for adultery was generally what followed.

Lukes gospel starts with different characters, with Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple. Its his big day, and all the other priests are waiting for him to come out, and when he does come out he cant say a word. He's been waiting all his life for this moment, and when it comes he fluffs his lines.

Then theres Elizabeth, whos waited all her life to have a baby, and its never come. Adulthood for her has been overshadowed by the monthly disappointments and the social stigma of childlessness. Shes defined by what shes not. Being defined by what youre not is the essence of poverty. Homelessness. Joblessness. Statelessness.

Jospeh, Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth all face profound and demanding impact of this Nativity Story. Theyre dealing with professional failure, personal disappointment, genuine fear, and heart-breaking hurt. Maybe youre in one or more of those places today. If so, youre in good company.

Stephen Hough, the concert pianist who (incidentally) used to regularly and rightly defeat me in piano competitions when we were both teenagers (though I was very put out at the time) commented this week:

I admit to being a Christian, albeit one with a dog warranty and failing batteries. I often stand back from the crib. But I cant walk away. 

Perhaps Stephen speaks for many of us.

Of course, there is comfort in the Nativity Story where even the minor characters in the story are out of their depth. The innkeeper in Bethlehem, trying to accommodate all those extra visitors. He knows what it means to be overwhelmed at work. The soldiers whom Herod sent out to slaughter the innocents. They know what it means to be in a crisis of conscience and to have no respect but plenty of fear for the orders of their boss. Consider the chief priests and scribes whom Herod calls in to explain this rumour of the birth of the messiah. Theyre torn between their longing for the redemption of Israel and their social and economic loyalty to a corrupt regime.

The Christmas storys teeming with personal grief, unresolved longings, uncomfortable secrets, shouty politics, shabby compromises, divided communities, intense fears, social humiliation, and aching hurts.

And when you see adults performing a Nativity Play, not for their grandparents iPhone shots but in order, genuinely, to inhabit the story and make it their own, you see people not just suffering, not just struggling, but also searching.

The wise men. They were scouring the heavens for truth, for meaning, for wisdom, for hope. They took the best science of their day and the courage of their traveling companions and followed the star with profound trust and devastating political naivety.

The shepherds. Continually searching for pasture. In touch with the changing seasons, any changing climate. Out of touch with their communities because they couldnt keep the rituals and laws. But they were looking to the heavens too, for hope, for peace, for redemption, for glory.

Look at Simeon and Anna in the temple for baby Jesus presentation after 40 days. Theyd spent their whole lives watching and waiting for the consolation of Israel. Whole lives lived in hope, but until then a hope not met.

And behind all this Matthew and Luke, writing their gospels, explaining how this tiny baby was Emmanuel, God with us, searching to find the best way of telling us who Jesus is, what it means that God is with us. They are also pondering why the saviour was rejected by his own people, why the Messiahs coming didnt signal the end of the world, and how there is still so much evil in the face of such overwhelming goodness.

I started with the experience some of you had of Nativity Plays. Memories which stay with you. Another Stephen, Stephen Cottrell - soon to be Archbishop of York, tells a story in Do nothing: Christmas is Coming from his own parish when he was vicar.

About half-way through the service, a little girl, Miriam, toddled up to the front of the church. She can only have been about two or three at the time. For several minutes she stood before the crib, gazing intently at the figures. Then, very carefully, she stepped inside and sat down.

"So as people looked at the crib that Christmas, as well as the shepherds and the angels, and the ox and the ass, and Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, they saw Miriam. She sat there for the rest of the service, content to have become part of the story.

And Christmas is not just for the children.

In the end the good news of Christmas is for all of us, with our all our suffering, struggling, and searching. Dear friends, Christmas really isnt just for the children. It is for me and you and all of us. May we, in all our complexity and suffering and struggling and searching, not stand back from the crib, may be drawn close to find our place with Christ at the heart of this story in which God is speaking to us to bring life and hope for all creation.

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