I am not sure why I have thought more about Nativity plays this year, but I have. Perhaps it has something to do with my daughter playing Mary in her nursery’s Nativity Play. The nursery is a secular company and while there may be Christians among the staff, no one has been overtly Christian (this is NOT to say they are bad people – they are phenomenal nursery workers and April and I couldn’t be happier with how they have worked with our daughter). But the point is, I grew up in a supposedly much more religious environment in the southern United States and our Christmas plays were Santa Claus and reindeer.
Here, it simply seems to be part of the culture that children put on Nativity plays. It’s the ‘story of Christmas’. I’ve been thinking about it and have come to compare it to the way Americans tell the story of Thanksgiving. Whatever other claimants have to the original Thanksgiving, the one that has taken the spotlight is the one where the Native Americans (called ‘Indians’ when I was growing up) help the Pilgrims survive in the new world and in turn the Pilgrims invite the Native Americans for a big feast. This story has little to do with how Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and whatever happened at the feast the Native Americans got the short end of the stick (to put it mildly) in later events with the abhorrent way we have treated them. Today, it is whitewashed in sentimentality and played over and over in school plays.
This is what I believe is happening to the Christmas story. All the power has been drained out of the story and we have left a kind of, ‘this is how it all began’ story, though what we do today has little resemblance to what that was about. Of course, I don’t think that we need secular institutions to do this for us. The church has been doing a great job on it’s own. Over at connexions, Kim Fabricius has posted a fantastic post calling us to boycott Nativity plays. He writes:
Because the children in Nativity Plays are corrupting our grown-ups. Parents and relatives watch little Johnny with a towel over his head, and little Billy in his dressing gown carrying a shoe box … and … Mary cuddling a dumb doll, and they go, “Ah, isn’t it sweet!”, as they take their photographs for the family album. But the Christmas story isn’t sweet! It is bitter – very bitter. The crib and the cross are cut from the same wood.
Kim starts a good discussion on the ‘company line’ of the church, i.e., nativity plays are an important form of evangelism because they reach people outside the church. The question is, with what? Does it call people to rethink what God does or is it now just part of the story we hear this time of year and give little thought to it (much like Americans and the ‘First Thanksgiving’ stories)? And, does it give a false sense of what the gospel is to those who come to church already and think ‘this is what the gospel is’?
I admit I do appreciate the nativity play more this year with Savannah. She has learned a basic story, partly through practising her play and April and I will work with it as she grows up. But still, I find it bit of a hindrance, smacked dab in the middle of Advent with a ‘once upon a time’ feeling. I know this amounts to heresy in many churches where the nativity play has such a revered place in December, but we need to think differently about it and what are we saying (and stop hiding behind the argument that this is outreach). The question is how to pull the Nativity back from the borders of a fairy tale and get people to think through why this story would make a mad king kill every child in Bethlehem; why it was scandalous for a teenager to be pregnant; why shepherds were strange invites. If the Christmas story is going to change the world, cute simply isn’t enough.