Dec 242013

The ‘tradition’ in one of my church’s has been to have a Christingle service on Christmas Eve. I’ve nothing against them, but I wanted to do something different this year. Relying on last year’s example of a good number of visitors, I decided that I was going to have a nativity play – where (almost) everyone got a part.

So, we had loads of props and dressing-up stuff, and even those who didn’t get that into things were expected to join in the heavenly choir of angels shouting ‘Hallelujah’ at appropriate points, or providing animal noises for the stable. It was first come, first served for the main parts, but there was the possibility to be part of the group of shepherds, or join the angelic ranks.

In the end, most folk participated to some degree. It was all a bit chaotic as I tried to narrate and provide some scene-setting direction to those about to have speaking parts.

It was all a bit of a laugh, with the Christmas story being told through song, readings, and the nativity scenes.

But the main point was that everyone had an opportunity to join in, and it was this point I made when I summed it up. Christmas is an invitation to participation – through God’s ‘participation’ in our life through the incarnation. We could sit back and be passive spectators, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the cute presentations, but Christmas is a call to become involved; to be part of the good news story.

I hope everyone who came along ‘got’ that tonight, even in the messiness of it all (and there’s a message there too, I suspect).

I hope that you too will be blessed this Christmas, and that you get that bit more involved with God, as he calls us to participate in the ongoing story of his love come to us at Christmas.

Dec 212010

There’s been plenty of chat on Facebook and on blogs about the new dramatisation of the nativity on the BBC. I’ve seen the first two and have been pleasantly surprised. Obviously it’s highly speculative, but in seeking to tell the human story behind the events so well-known to Christians, it has, I think, brought a fresh dimension to it.

I think when we visit the story we focus so much on the ‘Christian’ aspects (because that is, rightly so, the important part for believers) that we forget there is a very human story there. Can we really expect Joseph to just accept, unquestioningly, what he has been told in a dream, regardless of how devout he may be? Putting the human face on the story makes it, I would suggest, even more ‘believable’.

Of course, that assumes the historicity of events in the first instance and I was interested to discover that one of my former lecturers at new College was an historical advisor to the programme. Dr Helen Bond writes about her take on the adaptation here. She makes the wise observation that the historical accuracy is, in a sense, a secondary consideration, because it is the story in all its dimensions – the theological, the historical, the human – that is important. To separate out the parts may make for a more acceptable story to the more ‘rational’- or ‘secularly’-minded, but it is only as a whole that it makes sense, because it is a story which must, by virtue of it being a story of faith, contain all of those elements.

The Nativity helps, I would suggest, give that nudge back towards remembering the human story behind it all.

Dec 172008

I’ve heard many conversations this advent about the ‘real’ Christmas story. I don’t know if it’s simply a fashionable trend or whether there are more people genuinely seeking answers, but it’s been surprising how many conversations there have been that including such statements as “There was no donkey!” or “It wasn’t actually a stable!” or “There might have been three gifts, but three men is only an assumption.”

In one respect such discussions are interesting because it gives you an opportunity explore the ‘real’ story a bit more. But I wonder if puncturing the ‘mythology’ that has grown up around the Christmas story is altogether valuable. When we assume three wise men or conflate the timing of wise men and shepherds or have Mary travelling on a non-existent donkey, does it really undermine any fundamental doctrines or Christian ‘truths’? By allowing ‘stories’ to grow around these events do we not, rather, encourage a greater sense of involvement and ownership in those who hear and retell these stories? So long, of course, as the underlying gospel is faithfully represented.

On the other hand, by exploring and exposing some of the accepted wisdom in the traditional interpretations, there is opportunity to reveal further colour in the stories. On Sunday past, at my placement church, there was the third in a short series of advent reflections – myrrh, the other two being gold and frankincense (the 4th Sunday being given over to the junior church nativity service). The ‘traditional’ teaching on the gift of myrrh is that it is looking ahead to Jesus’ death as it is often used as an embalming ointment. However, Stuart began his sermon with an ‘all you never knew about myrrh’ presentation. I must confess to wondering where it was going and he duly went – myrrh has just has many uses, in fact more, for the living as for the dead and so myrrh could just as easily be a reminder of some of the many facets of Jesus. Myrrh has healing properties, it soothes, it takes away the stench of decay. When we explore the ‘story’ and even allow other stories to come into play, we unwrap a few more layers and thereby show the depth of meaning behind the simple ‘facts’.

There’s another thing that stories do. Facts explain things. Facts tell us where limits are. They provide ‘data’. Stories bring colour and depth and vibrancy. They bring out meaning and yet can also shroud in mystery. How can mere facts reveal the mystery of a virgin birth, God incarnate as a baby or the sense of wonder experienced by those who came to worship?

I think I’d rather see the mystery than the trivia, interesting though it may be.

Dec 212007

Stewart recently posted on his blog about ‘depth‘ in the Christian faith. Coincidentally, I had been reading some discussions across some other websites (here and here) about some of the misconceptions surrounding the Christmas story (and the selective reporting of what was said). The two seem to come together in my mind and chime with some of the stuff I’ve been doing at uni (this, for example) this last semester.

I do wonder just how much baggage we have floating around in our head that shapes our understanding of our faith – and more to the point (and pertinent to Stewart’s blog) how ignorant we are of its inaccuracy. I was thinking about this in terms of hymns and praise songs. To what degree does what we sing in church become our understanding of the Christian faith? After all, ask someone to tell you what was said in the sermon and ask them for some lines form what was sung and I think it’s a safe bet which will be remembered best my most. This, I reckon, is even more true of those who turn up to church at Christmas and Easter only – generally to see ‘the kids’ take part in nativity plays or Easter presentations.

So, take for example “We three kings of Orient are”. Right from the very opening line it’s a misrepresentation of scripture. Pick almost any other hymn (Christmas or otherwise) and you’ll find similar things. And that’s what becomes people’s understanding of what scripture really says and what the Gospel message is.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be singing hymns. What we should understand is what hymns are. They’re poetry set to music – they’re metaphorical, symbolic, fanciful, exaggeration, and all the other things that make good poetry poetry and not an academic study. And the same applies to scripture. We need to be able to distinguish between its poetry, its prose, its metaphors, its parables, its advice, its history and so on. But to do that we need education and depth of understanding – right back to Stewart’s point. And as he suggests, that takes effort, both on the part of the educator and those who wish to learn. I think it also comes back to something that seems to have been cropping up in much of my studies this year – the proper understanding of myth/legend/saga/story, call it what you will. I was also reading an article by Richard Dawkins (sent to me by a friend) and I think it perfectly illustrates the ignorance, even of those who are well-educated, of how scripture needs to be read.

Do I have an answer to how to ‘fix it’? Absolutely not, except perhaps to make the same commitment as Stewart has done – to take responsibility and become a better-educated Christian; and in so doing, become a better witness to the truth of the Gospel, rather than reinforce popular misconceptions.

The next big question then is how to carry this into ministry. How does one have a teaching ministry that encourages and promotes depth in a congregation and yet also meets all of the other needs of that congregation. Now there’s a subject for serious consideration.

Dec 042007

Interesting to see someone in government speaking out against the ‘pc’ brigade.

BBC NEWS | Politics | Christianophobia warning from MP

And along the same lines:
BBC NEWS | Magazine | Reindeer Ralph supplants Nativity

In the second report it’s interesting to note that it’s not other faiths who have a problem with Christmas or Christianity, it seems to be those with ‘an agenda’ – arguably a misplaced one.
I think I’d agree with Mark Pritchard’s assessment that an erosion of Christian ‘rights’ (not the correct word, but can’t think of another at the moment) will eventually lead to a more extremist backlash. I don’t mean that in the sense of a violent protest, rather that the voice of Christianity that will become most vocal will be the more fundamentalist one.