Stephen Kuhrt writes: Each year, I write a Children’s Carol Service for Christ Church, New Malden in which we try to combine the fun of Christmas with thinking hard about the Christmas stories and their meaning. The church is always full of loads of children and adults in Christmas costumes and much of it has a very ‘pantomime’ feel. But the script is deliberately written to make those present think as well as be entertained. This particular service focuses on the dangers that come with both an uncritical and sentimental response to the Christmas stories, usually through an uncritical response to their traditional reading but also the scepticism that avoids engagement for much the same reasons. Its aim is to combine celebration of the joy of Christmas with developing a proper confidence in the gospel stories. Feel free to use and/or change the script this coming Christmas in any way that you wish.
Mr Sceptic enters in biblical costume
Mr Sceptic: (in a dour and sceptical Yorkshire accent) Well, good morning everyone and welcome to our Children’s Carol Service here at Christ Church. I’m your story teller this year and my name is Mr Sceptic. Now I’ve put on this costume to make a bit of an effort but I’ve got to confess, right from the start, that there is so much about this whole Christmas story that’s extremely tricky and difficult to believe.
Mr Uncritical enters also in biblical costume
Mr Uncritical: (in an enthusiastic and slightly posh voice) Well, good morning everyone and welcome from me as well. I’m Mr Uncritical, your other story teller this morning, and I’ve got to tell you right from the start, Mr Sceptic, that there is no place at all for all of your doubts! Christmas is a time for putting away our questions and simply accepting the truth of this fabulous story about God coming in baby Jesus to set us all free!
Mr Sceptic: (reacting) Yes but surely Mr Uncritical, all that stuff about a Virgin Birth, Shepherds and Angels and Wise Men coming with gifts from the east is all stuff that we at least need to question? It hardly seems very likely, does it?
Mr Uncritical: (taken aback) Question it? Not at all! That won’t get us anywhere. What we need is a strong, uncritical confidence in the Christmas story!
Mr Sceptic: Oh no we don’t?
Mr Uncritical: Oh yes we do!
Mr Sceptic: Oh no we don’t?
Mr Uncritical: Oh yes we do!
Mr Sceptic: Oh no we don’t?
Mr Uncritical: Oh yes we do!
Mr Sceptic: Look Mr Uncritical enough of the pantomime! I think most people here would be with me in saying there is so much of the Christmas story that either seems ridiculously far-fetched or simply doesn’t fit with what we know from history. And surely being a Christian isn’t about switching our minds off but properly engaging them?
Mr Uncritical: Well I’m not sure about that. I think responding to these stories is more about trust and faith. Why don’t we get on with telling the Christmas story together this morning, Mr Sceptic, and let the people here decide whether they prefer your negative, sceptical questioning or my invigorating, inspiring faith…(smiling smugly)…I’m sure they’ll prefer my approach.
Mr Sceptic: Well I’m not so sure, Mr Uncritical. They may not look very bright but I’m sure that most of the people here today, certainly once they hear what I have to say, will much prefer my thoughtful questioning to your uncritical fundamentalism.
Mr Uncritical: We’ll see. Our story will begin in a moment. But first let’s stand and sing our first carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. And, as we sing it, let’s have all those who have come here this morning dressed as Joseph or Mary or angels up here on the platform.
Mary’s, Josephs and Angels come onto the platform
Carol: O little Town of Bethlehem
Mr Uncritical: Beautifully sung everyone! With real faith! Do take a seat. We’ve sung about Bethlehem but our story actually starts in Nazareth. You’ll like that, Mr Sceptic, because Nazareth was ‘up north’! It was there that Mary was engaged to a carpenter called Joseph. But before they were married, an angel came and told Mary that she would have a baby called Jesus who would be God’s promised rescuer.
Mr Sceptic: And the problems start right there. I mean how we can believe that Mary got pregnant without Joseph being involved? All of us know that’s not how babies are made. Virgin birth? ‘Virgin on the ridiculous’ more like!
Mr Uncritical: Oh Mr Sceptic, it’s only a problem if we make it one! God can do anything he wants to and our job is just to believe it! That’s what God wants from us! The love that asks no questions…
Mr Sceptic: I don’t agree. Surely God wants us to be honest…
Mr Uncritical: No I don’t think that’s true at all…(sentimentally)…I think at Christmas time, in particular, most people in this church prefer my resolute faith to all your cynical doubts.
Mr Sceptic: And I think they’d prefer my intellectual honesty to all your fundamentalist flannel!
Mr Uncritical: Oh no they don’t!!
Mr Sceptic: Oh yes they do!!
Mr Uncritical: (getting louder) Oh no they don’t!!
Mr Sceptic: (getting louder) Oh yes they do!!
Mr Uncritical: (very loud) Oh no they don’t!!
Mr Sceptic: (very loud) Oh yes they do!!
Mrs Reasonable emerges from the back again dressed in biblical costume
Mrs Reasonable: Now listen boys. I think you both need to calm down
Mr Uncritical & Mr Sceptic: (looking at each other first) Who are you?
Mrs Reasonable: I’m Mrs Reasonable. I’ve been watching what’s been going on and I’ve got I say I think you’re both wrong. You Mr Uncritical for dismissing the perfectly reasonable questions that Mr Sceptic wants to raise! And you, Mr Sceptic, for not searching hard enough for the answers!
Mr Uncritical: Well I must say, I don’t care for your tone! Surely belief in the virgin birth is a matter of faith?
Mrs Reasonable: Yes but not blind faith. You’ll get much further with Mr Sceptic if you explain that belief in the Virgin Birth didn’t spring from nowhere.
Mr Sceptic: Now I’m the one who’s getting suspicious. What do you mean?
Mrs Reasonable: Well if you’d both read your Bibles more carefully you’d know that, right from the start, it’s the story of God being the sole giver of life. Human disobedience brought that life under threat but the entire story of God’s rescue plan has him bringing new life where people thought that none was possible. Sarah having Isaac, Rebecca having Jacob, Hannah having Samuel and Elizabeth having John. None of these births were possible in human terms but God brought them about. They were signs that God is the sole source of life.
Mr Sceptic: But surely, Mrs Reasonable, the virgin birth of Jesus is a different thing altogether?
Mrs Reasonable: Well it’s the most amazing of these events, agreed! But see it in the light of the whole biblical story and we can see it as the climax of where this story, right from the start, was always going!
Mr Sceptic: (suddenly more open) Well I must confess that’s a bit different from the defensive response I normally hear. And something I’d like to think more about…
Mr Uncritical: (suddenly thoughtful) Me too. I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen it that way before. But… (shrugging it off and becoming strident again) …on with the story. Soon after Mary discovered that she was expecting a baby, she and Joseph had to travel down to Bethlehem because the Emperor Augustus had ordered that a census take place and everyone had to travel to their home town to be registered. (Pompously) This, as Luke tells us, was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Mr Sceptic: And I’ve got to say, I’ve got big problems with that as well…
Mrs Reasonable: Well put them on hold for the moment, Mr Sceptic and let’s stand and sing our next Carol ‘Little Donkey’. And whilst we sing it, we want the angels to go and sit down and the Mary’s and Joseph’s to walk down this central aisle and then down this side one as make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Carol: Little Donkey
Mr Uncritical: What a lovely carol. Do sit down everyone. So Mary and Joseph travelled all the way from their home town in Nazareth in time for the census in Bethlehem.
Mr Sceptic: But I’m afraid this is full of problems, Mr Uncritical! First, Matthew doesn’t tell us anything at all about Mary and Joseph coming from Nazareth. He gives the impression they came from Bethlehem. And, second, there’s no historical record at all of this census to which Luke refers. Quirinius was governor of Syria but only a number of years later and so it’s more than possible that Luke made the whole thing up!
Mr Uncritical: Made it up!! How dare you! I’m sorry but I’m not sure I can continue telling the Christmas story alongside this faithless man! Mrs Reasonable, surely you agree with me!!??
Mrs Reasonable: Well Mr Sceptic has got a point, Mr Uncritical. Matthew and Luke do look rather different on this.
Mr Sceptic: There you go, Mr Uncritical, what did I say?
Mrs Reasonable: But that doesn’t mean their accounts aren’t true. Or incompatible, Mr Sceptic! There is the possibility that whilst Mary came from Nazareth, Joseph came from Bethlehem. He could easily have been working up in Nazareth for a time. Or come there to fetch his bride and take her back to his home town of Bethlehem.
Mr Uncritical: And the census whilst Quirinius was governor of Syria? That’s not in doubt is it?
Mrs Reasonable: Well again Mr Sceptic is right. Quirinius definitely did come later as Governor of Syria. But the word protos that Luke uses here, when it is placed with a genitive can add ‘before’ to ‘the first’. And this would mean that Luke is telling us about the census that happened before the Quirinius one. Ancient history contains plenty of gaps, Mr Sceptic, and just because we don’t hear about this census anywhere else, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen!
Mr Uncritical: Well fascinating stuff. With the help of Mrs Reasonable, I’m beginning to see the value of your questions and even your doubts, Mr Sceptic…
Mr Sceptic: And I’m beginning to see that an enquiring mind and these Christmas stories can actually go together. But can we really believe all that stuff about Jesus being born in a stable because the hotels in Bethlehem were all full up? And all those sentimental Christmas pictures of baby Jesus there surrounded by cuddly animals? (pointing at screen) I mean just look at them!
Mr Uncritical: (annoyed) Of course we can! You’re drifting back into spoiling the wonderful Christmas story again, Mr Sceptic!!
Mrs Reasonable: No he’s not, Mr Uncritical! He’s made a good point. And it’s got a yes and no answer. The Bible doesn’t say anything about a stable or an innkeeper. The so-called ‘inn’ was probably the guest room of a normal house. But the manger that Jesus was placed in does point to him being born in that part of the house that animals were normally brought into at night time. And that shows that Luke is wanting us to know that the birth of Jesus, rather than being grand and impressive, was something humble, lowly and not at all cuddly!
Mr Sceptic: Well, you’ve certainly got me a bit more interested, Mrs Reasonable. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about these answers to my questions. Perhaps I have been a bit hasty… (suddenly asserting himself again) But it’s high time we sung our next carol. And as we sing, we want Mary and Josephs to go and sit down and the angels to come back here on the platform with any shepherds that we also have here this morning.
Carol: It was on a Starry Night
Mr Uncritical: Beautifully sung everyone. Take a seat. And that night there were shepherds out on the hills above Bethlehem looking over their sheep when an angel of the Lord came and told them that that day, in the town of David, a Saviour had been born to them: Christ the Lord. The shepherds were told that the sign to them would be a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. And then a great company of the heavenly host suddenly appeared with the angel praising God and singing glory to God in the highest. Got a problem with that, Mr Sceptic?
Mr Sceptic: Well given you’ve asked, yes I have! I mean how many of us see angels, let alone ‘the whole company of the heavenly host’? If this story has any historical basis, those simple shepherds must have just imagined the whole angel bit…
Mr Uncritical: Oh Mr Sceptic, I do pity you. With all your doubts and questions you miss out on so much that a bit more faith could give you!
Mr Sceptic: But truth matters, Mr Uncritical! Has an angel ever appeared to you? He certainly hasn’t to me…
Mr Uncritical: (taken aback) Well no… but that’s hardly the point…
Mrs Reasonable: Can I say something?
Mr Uncritical: I wish you would. I need support against this Grinch trying to steal my Christmas!
Mrs Reasonable: Well Mr Sceptic is right. We don’t see angels all the time. And the Bible doesn’t say that we do – within its stories they occur pretty infrequently. That’s why we’re told the shepherds were terrified. Angels come at special points in the biblical story when the life of heaven is connecting in a dramatically new way with the life of earth. And the inclusion of the angels here – and in such a number – was to show that Jesus’ birth was the greatest possible example of the life of heaven breaking in on earth.
Mr Uncritical: Precisely Mrs Reasonable. That’s put you in your place, Mr Sceptic.
Mrs Reasonable: Well there is as much challenge for you here, Mr Uncritical.
Mr Uncritical: Oh, how is that?
Mrs Reasonable: Well if you had realised how much Jesus’ birth represented the life of heaven breaking in on earth, you’d have paid greater attention to the way that it turned the whole of the status quo on earth completely upside down.
Mr Uncritical: What do you mean?
Mrs Reasonable: Well in your summary of the Angels and the Shepherds just now you left out a crucial bit. That bit where the angel said that he brought ‘Good News of great joy for all the people’. At the heart of the Christmas story – and the life of heaven breaking in on earth through the coming of Jesus – is the Good News that God coming in Jesus totally shook up the status quo because it represented the God of heaven being for everyone.
Mr Sceptic: Shook up the status quo? God being for everyone? You’re starting to make the Christmas story sound quite radical, Mrs Reasonable.
Mrs Reasonable: It’s as radical as you could possibly get Mr Sceptic!! The sad thing is that when put in a box called ‘religion’ – as both you and Mr Uncritical both tend to put it – most of this then gets missed. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that in a moment…
Mr Uncritical: I’m sorry but now I’m getting suspicious. I’m not sure I want the Christmas story to be radical…
Mrs Reasonable: I know you don’t, Mr Uncritical. And it’s one of the biggest reasons why people like Mr Sceptic get so turned off the Christmas story and think it’s simply sentimental nonsense. The angels in the Christmas story symbolised that the life of heaven was breaking into earth with the coming of Jesus in a way that meant that everything in the world, including its politics, was being turned completely upside down.
Mr Sceptic: Wow, I’ve never seen it that way before. It’s a very radical story, isn’t it?
Mrs Reasonable: It sure is, Mr Sceptic. And one that your scepticism, just as much as Mr Uncritical’s uncriticalness, is often in danger of missing.
Mr Uncritical: Well I’m learning a lot as well. Maybe I need to stop being so uncritical and ask a few more questions.
Mr Sceptic: And maybe I need to look a bit harder for the answers. Well the last part of our Christmas story now. We’re going to sing ‘We Three Kings’. Shepherds can go and sit down and it’s time for any Wise Men or Kings that we have here this morning to come up here on the platform. And King Herods because, for some strange reason, he’s in the story as well.
Carol: We Three Kings
Mr Uncritical: Yes after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there were wise men from the east who came to Jerusalem seeking the one born king of the Jews. They had seen his star in the east and came to worship him. First they came to King Herod and who was ‘disturbed and all Jerusalem with him’. He sent the Wise Men off to Bethlehem asking them to search for the child and then report back so he could worship him too. But, in reality, Herod was up to no good!
Mr Sceptic: Which is all a bit far-fetched, isn’t it? A bit implausible. I mean why would King Herod be worried about the arrival of a tiny, little baby in Bethlehem? ‘Herod was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him’? Give over! Kings in the ancient world were concerned with the real world of politics – not the arrival of little babies!
Mr Uncritical: Well if I’m honest, I’m not quite sure why Herod saw baby Jesus as such a threat, Mr Sceptic. But that’s what the Bible says and so that’s what I’m going to believe.
Mrs Reasonable: Well really! Really!! Both of you are as bad as each other! Really, really hopeless!
Mr Uncritical: I beg your pardon?
Mr Sceptic: Yes, what do you mean?
Mrs Reasonable: Well the reason why Herod was so terrified was because this baby born in Bethlehem was a huge political threat to him!! It’s amazing how you, Mr Uncritical and you, Mr Sceptic have both managed to miss this. Herod was utterly determined to present himself as the true king of Israel. Why do you think he spent such a fortune rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem? Or his fortress at Masada? He wanted people to think that he was the Messiah, God’s special king and the thing that he feared above anything else was this being challenged.
Mr Sceptic: Oh come now, Mrs Reasonable, I’m prepared to engage with a lot of what you’ve said today but if you’re trying to tell me that Jesus, the little baby in the manger, was any sort of threat to the political status quo, I’d be hard pressed to believe it.
Mr Uncritical: As would I. As a sincere Christian the last thing I’d be happy with is any sense of the birth of Jesus being political and challenging the status quo. As we all know religion and politics should never, ever mix!
Mrs Reasonable: And you’re both 100% wrong on this. Hopelessly and dangerously wrong!! Herod was right to be scared to bits of Jesus because Herod was precisely the type of false king that Jesus was coming to rid the world of. And it wasn’t just Herod. When Luke tells his Christmas story, he has the angels taking titles used of the Emperor Augustus – titles like ‘Saviour’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Prince of Peace’ and gives them to Jesus instead. It was all one emphatic statement that Jesus was coming to rid the world of every single bit of evil oppression…
Mr Sceptic: Well you know what, I’m getting interested now. The end of evil and oppression. I like the sound of that. I do represent the northern heartlands…
Mr Uncritical: And I’m open to being persuaded too. I’ve always seen Jesus as more of a religious figure than a political one but if this is true then the rescue that he came to bring isn’t just spiritual but about bringing God’s amazing justice to this world.
Herod storms onto the platform
Herod: Now hold on just there!! I’ll have none of this talk!! None of it do you hear!! Get down here!! (grabs Mrs Reasonable and pulls her to the front of the platform) I’m Herod, the true King of Israel and I’ve worked for years to try and make sure that people don’t pick up on the threat that Jesus posed to my power and now you’re threatening that, Mrs Reasonable. I’ve got to get you out of the way so that Mr Sceptic and Mr Uncritical carry on being blind to just how deeply political the Christmas story is. That way Christianity will carry on being the weak, inoffensive, insipid thing that most people seem happy for it to be!! (laughs wickedly)
Mrs Reasonable: (struggling to get free) Don’t listen to them boys…
Augustus strides up as well
Augustus: (in a haughty, highly strung voice) No!! Don’t listen to her and her rubbish. I’m Augustus, the Saviour, the Prince of Peace and Lord of the World. And the last thing that I want is people picking up on the massive challenge that Jesus came to bring to the power of tyrants like me. Most of the time I managed to kid people with a slogan about peace, ‘Pax Romana’ whilst making most of those people slaves! (laughs wickedly) And the last thing I wants is you blowing the gaff on this, Mrs Reasonable (grabs hold of Mrs Reasonable with Herod)
Mrs Reasonable: (shouting as they struggle with her) Don’t believe it, Mr Sceptic, Mr Uncritical. Don’t believe what they’re trying to tell you about the Christmas story! They’re just trying to keep oppressive and evil power from being challenged and turn Christmas into a sweet, inoffensive, insipid story!
Herod: Enough!! You don’t need Mrs Reasonable. We’ll get rid of her and you can go back to your tame, sweet Christmas!
Augustus: Yes, allow us to get rid of her, and you can all have a nice relaxing, unchallenging Christmas!
Mr Uncritical: I’m not sure I like this but what can we do?
Mr Sceptic: Nor do I? These evil rulers certainly seem worried that we might believe Mrs Reasonable but what’s to be done about it?
Mrs Reasonable: (struggling to get free) Shout ‘Jesus is Lord and King’ and get as many others to shout it as well. Then you’ll see.
Herod: (alarmed) Don’t you dare shout Jesus is King!! I forbid it!!
Augustus: (equally alarmed) And don’t you dare shout Jesus is Lord!! I forbid it!!
Mr Uncritical: Well I don’t know what difference it will make but let’s try.
Mr Sceptic: Yes, I’m confused as well. But let’s have a go everyone. On the count of three let’s shout ‘Jesus is Lord and King’. There are the words up on screen. Really loudly everyone. 1, 2, 3… Jesus is Lord and King!!
Congregation all shout with Mr Sceptic and Mr Uncritical that Jesus is Lord and King
Herod: (visibly shaken) Ahhh… I can’t bear it!! They’ve rumbled us Augustus.
Augustus: (equally shaken) Yes, they’ve realised that Jesus came as the king who would end the evil, oppressive rule of tyrants just like us…
Herod: Let’s have one last go at standing against them. I am Herod, the true King of Israel and I forbid anyone to say otherwise!!
Augustus: And I am Augustus, the Lord of the World and I forbid anyone to say otherwise!!
Mr Uncritical: No they aren’t. Are you ready everyone…
Mr Sceptic: The words are still on the screen. Really loudly everyone: 1, 2, 3… Jesus is Lord and King!!
Congregation all shout with Mr Sceptic and Mr Uncritical that Jesus is Lord and King
Herod: They’ve rumbled us. Our power is gone. Forever! Run for it Augustus!!
(Herod and Augustus run screaming from the church)
Mrs Reasonable: Well done boys. That was a near run thing!
Mr Uncritical: Yes and I’ve got to admit that this morning has shown me that this story is so much more radical than I ever imagined. I realise now that being uncritical about the Christmas story and asking no searching questions about it has helped to make it really tame, insipid and unchallenging. Christianity isn’t just about an individual, spiritual rescue. It’s about God’s wonderful victory over every form of evil and oppression within this world. Thank you Mrs Reasonable!
Mr Sceptic: Yes and I’ve got to admit that my scepticism has been no better. I’ve been so suspicious of the Christmas story that I’ve completed missed how truly radical it really is. And how much it speaks into my longing for justice. It really is the most subversive story ever told! Thank you Mrs Reasonable!
Mrs Reasonable: It’s a pleasure boys! And now we’ve got rid of Herod and Augustus and we’ve understood the real power of the Christmas story, let’s have everyone up who’s come in costume up here on the platform as we all sing ‘Away in a Manger’
Carol: Away in a Manger
Carol: See him lying on a bed of straw