Is it possible to challenge tradition in a positive way, and tell the Christmas story in a way faithful to the text of Scripture? Stephen Kuhrt at Christchurch New Malden thinks so.
CHILDREN’S CAROL SERVICE AT CHRIST CHURCH NEW MALDEN 2013: ‘IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO!’
Stephen writes: Each year at Christ Church, New Malden, we have a Children’s Carol Service on the Sunday before Christmas at our 9.30 ‘Sssh Free Church’. All of the children and as many adults as possible are encouraged to come dressed as angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph etc and the result is something someway between a Nativity service and a Christmas panto. This year, I particularly tried to respond to the challenge issued by my friend Ian Paul to write a Nativity Play that questioned traditional readings in the light of the insights of fresh biblical scholarship. I was ‘Shepherd Pie’ and with lay preacher Susannah Alexander playing ‘Angel Delight’ with Jon Cook, Pete Everett and Andy Black forming ‘The Heavenly Host’ and Brian Stuart as Herod. For the tune of ‘It aint necessarily so’, you will need to watch Del’s response to Rodney near the end of ‘Yuppy Love’—the first episode of the 1989 series of ‘Only Fools and Horses’.
Shepherd Pie: Well it’s me again, Shepherd Pie, back again this year to be part of us hearing the Christmas story once again. And I’m sure that everyone in this church, like me, is looking forward to this warm, cosy, sentimental story that God gave us to make us feel all nice and fuzzy! That’s what the Christmas story is there for, isn’t it! To make us feel lovely – Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special and a baby in a manger! Wonderful! So on with the story…
(Angel Delight runs on)
Angel Delight: Well hold on … just hold on a minute Shepherd Pie!
Shepherd Pie: I’m sorry! Do you mind not interrupting? I’m just about to do the Christmas story with everyone. We’ve got kids in costumes, the band is ready and I’m feeling all ‘Christmassy’. What’s the problem!
Angel Delight: The problem? Well two things. First, you seemed to be starting it without me, which is hardly appropriate! I’m Angel Delight and pretty key to these things! Just because Amelia Lily and has been here recently, don’t think that I’ve been displaced! But second and more important, I’m just a bit worried about the way in which you have started the story. Warm, cosy and sentimental? Nice and fuzzy! If that’s your understanding of the Christmas story, then I fear that you haven’t seen its point at all… at all Shepherd Pie!
Shepherd Pie: Oh yes I have!
Angel Delight: Oh not you haven’t!
Shepherd Pie: Oh yes I have!
Angel Delight: (encouraging the congregation to join in) Oh not you haven’t!
Shepherd Pie: Look we’re not going to have any of that Panto nonsense! This is a Nativity at a very serious minded church! I’ll tell the Christmas story the way I understand it this morning and you can chip in, Angel Delight, if there is anything that you think should be different about it. But I’m pretty sure you won’t find anything!
Angel Delight: I wouldn’t be so sure, Shepherd Pie! And to help me I’ve bought along some of the heavenly host this morning?
Shepherd Pie: The what?
Angel Delight: The heavenly host! You know… the other angels that appeared with me to you shepherds. And here they are…
(The Heavenly Host – three other male angels – all enter)
Shepherd Pie: They don’t look much like angels to me. Some of them almost look like men! Next you’ll be telling me that Gabriel was a male angel rather than a girl one!
Angel Delight: Er… that’s just my point Shepherd Pie! Anyway, let me explain how the Heavenly Host are going to help us this morning. All of us are pretty good singers and if at any point in the Christmas story Shepherd Pie tells us something that needs questioning. I’m going to say ‘Hold on Shepherd Pie. It ain’t necessarily so’ and what we’ll then hear from the Heavenly Host is…
(Heavenly Host sing with intro ‘It ain’t necessarily so…’)
Angel Delight: And I think it would be good to have your help on this. So when I say ‘Hold on Shepherd Pie. It ain’t necessarily so’ I want you all to join in with the Heavenly Host in singing … (Heavenly host sing with congregation joining in) … I think you can do better than that. Let’s try it once again… (congregation and host sing again). Much better! Over to you, Shepherd Pie!
Shepherd Pie: OK… I think. Well let’s start the Christmas story by us all standing to sing our first Carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ and during this hymn I want all those dressed as Mary to come and stand here and all those dressed as angels to come and gather here… near to Angel Delight and the heavenly host. And those of you who are playing Joseph, I want you to be here. Let’s stand to sing…
Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Shepherd Pie: Well our story starts, not in Bethlehem, as it happens, but in the little town of Nazareth and with a girl called Mary who was engaged to be married to a man called Joseph. But before she was married to Joseph, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she was going to have a baby whom she should name Jesus and would be called the Son of God. Mary was totally delighted at the news as was Joseph when he found out. In fact they jumped for joy (can do that Mary and Joseph’s? Let’s see you jump for joy) and they simply couldn’t wait for the birth…
Angel Delight: Now hold on Shepherd Pie… I’m afraid to say that it ain’t necessarily so! Ready everyone…
The Heavenly Host (singing) It ain’t necessarily so…
Shepherd Pie: I beg your pardon. Why on earth not!
Angel Delight: Well for a start, neither Mary nor Joseph were jumping for joy when they first heard this news. Mary was greatly troubled when she first saw the angel, really shaken and when Joseph first heard about Mary being pregnant he would have been devastated as well. Let’s see you doing some angry faces Josephs. We’ve got to remember what a total scandal it would have been at the time for someone who wasn’t married to be expecting a baby, Shepherd Pie. People would have said lots of horrible things about Mary. (Can you try and look sad Marys?). It must have been a really scary time even though she was determined to obey God. And as for Joseph, it was only after an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that the baby had come from the Holy Spirit that he was OK about it all.
Shepherd Pie: Oh I see. Not quite as warm and cosy a story as I imagined!
Angel Delight: Precisely Shepherd Pie, precisely!
Shepherd Pie: Well I hope I’ve got the next bit right. At that time the Emperor Augustus order that a census be taken of the whole Roman world and that meant Joseph travelling from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because he belonged to the family of David.
Angel Delight: Right so far, Shepherd Pie!
Shepherd Pie: Phew! Well as our angels go back to their places let’s have our Mary and Joseph’s doing the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem – it can start by them going down this aisle and then up that one at the side back up here on the platform. And whilst they do that, we can all sing ‘Little Donkey’.
Carol: Little Donkey
Shepherd Pie: Good! Mary’s over there, Joseph’s over there and the baby Jesus in the manger in the middle. Well on with our story. Mary and Joseph had a long journey to Bethlehem although it was made somewhat easier by the donkey that carried Mary there. But when they got to Bethlehem they found that it was really crowded because of all the people there and none of the hotels had any space. In one place after another they were turned away until finally they met a kind innkeeper who said ‘I guess you can stay in my stable. It’s nothing much. But it will be warm for the baby’. And that night the baby was born and they placed him in a lovely warm manger. I’m sorry … why are you looking at me like that Angel Delight?
Angel Delight: I’m looking at you like that because of the sentimental tosh that is coming out of your mouth. Honestly Shepherd Pie… it most definitely ‘ain’t necessarily so!’ Come on everyone let’s show him…
The Heavenly Host (singing) It ain’t necessarily so…
Angel Delight: I’m sorry to tell you this, Shepherd Pie, but in the Christmas stories we don’t hear anything about a donkey, anything about innkeepers – kind or otherwise – and anything about a stable. There may have been these things but there are plenty of other explanations for the things that we are told about.
Shepherd Pie: Well I’m getting really annoyed now! You’re in danger of ruining my Christmas, Angel Delight! What do you mean?
Angel Delight: Well there’s no evidence that Mary and Joseph had a donkey – for all we know she may have had to walk the three day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And the truth is that ‘the inn’ that is referred to in the story probably doesn’t refer to a hotel but the part of the house where people put up their guests. People in those days often had part of their house where the animals were kept and it was probably there that the baby Jesus was placed. And please let’s stop all of this nonsense about a warm, cosy manger – a manger was an animal feeding trough – it would have been horrible and the last place that any of us would have liked to have put a new born baby! The fact that google images couldn’t come up with anything other than gleaming white sheets proves my point! And the lowliness of the manger is important because what it shows us that God sent the Saviour of the world to be born – not in comfort and security – but in a very ordinary way that showed that he had come for everyone!
Shepherd Pie: Wow I guess it does! And I guess that might apply to the next bit of the story as well because it’s the bit about us Shepherds.
Angel Delight: Yes and before that bit, let’s stand and sing again the carol ‘It was on a Starry Night’. And whilst that is happening Mary and Joseph’s move over there and lets have the angels back up here and any shepherds that are around as well…
Carol: It was on a Starry Night
Shepherd Pie: Well I’m a bit nervous now so I hope I get the next bit right. That night there were Shepherds out in the fields nearby Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks by night when an angel of the Lord appeared to them to tell them about the birth of Jesus – ‘a Saviour has been born to you’, the angel said, in the town of Bethlehem and the sign will be a baby lying in a manger. Then suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared praising God and singing ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’. (nervously) Did I get that bit right Angel Delight?
Angel Delight: Well perhaps it’s because you are a shepherd but yes you got that bit pretty much spot on Shepherd Pie, well done!
Shepherd Pie: Why thank you, Angel Delight!
Angel Delight: But since we’ve got the Heavenly Host up here and they aren’t needed on this occasion for ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, do you think it would be good to hear them sing what they sung to the shepherds? (appeal to congregation) Do you want to hear them sing it? I can’t hear you (etc)
The Heavenly Host: (singing) ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’
Angel Delight: Very nice! Well on with the story, Shepherd Pie!
Shepherd Pie: Well the next bit is the bit with the Wise Men. So as we sing our next Carol, let’s have the angels and shepherds going back to their places, Mary and Joseph’s staying up here and any wise men and also Herod’s making their way up here on to the platform. We’ve got at least one very scary one here this morning.
Carol: We Three Kings
Shepherd Pie: Well the last bit of the story. There were wise men out in the east who saw a star and decided to follow it in search of the one born King of the Jews bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their search took them to Jerusalem where they asked about this new king meaning that Herod became very afraid and did some terrible things to try and stop Jesus surviving. But he was really rather silly because what Herod should have realised was that Jesus was a different sort of king – a religious or spiritual king rather than a political one and he shouldn’t really have been scared of him at all.
Angel Delight: Well hold on Shepherd Pie, hold totally on. You were doing really well but you’re now completely lost again. Jesus not political? Herod shouldn’t have been scared of him? Ridiculous! It very definitely (big pause) ain’t necessarily so! Come on everyone a really big effort needed here…
The Heavenly Host (singing) It ain’t necessarily so…
Shepherd Pie: I don’t understand.
Angel Delight: Well in order to help you understand, let’s get Herod up here for a moment… (Herod comes up by Angel Delight) … Herod, what sort of king are you?
Herod: I’ll tell you what sort of king I am. I’m the sort that’s in charge. People have to do what I say and, if they don’t (laughs wickedly), nasty things tend to happen to them.
Angel Delight: There’s your answer Shepherd Pie! The reason Herod was terrified of Jesus is because Jesus came to put an end to all such horrible oppression and tyranny. One of the worst things that we can do with the Christmas stories if to forget how political they are. That’s the whole reason why Augustus is in Luke’s story and Herod is in Matthew’s. To show that Jesus was Lord of the world and not them!
Shepherd Pie: Wow that’s really something Angel Delight! This story isn’t really cosy and sentimental at all, is it?
Angel Delight: Not at all. The birth of Jesus means that evil and oppression has had its day and it’s on the run. It’s most emphatically not going to win! That’s the very good news that the angels announced! Now everyone do you want to see Herod turn from being horrible and nasty to being scared to bits … so scared he screams and runs out of this church? Do you want to see that? Well I’ll tell you how we can do it. We just need to shout these words really loudly (words appear on screen) ‘Jesus is King and we have come to worship him’. Do you think you can do that? There are the words … really loud remember – (everyone) ‘Jesus is King and we have come to worship him!’
Herod screams and runs out of the church in terror!
Angel Delight: The Christmas stories couldn’t be more political – don’t ever forget that Shepherd Pie! This isn’t cosy, sentimental tosh! It’s all about the God who made this world stepping down into it in lowliness and humility in order to defeat the power of evil and make both his people and his world into what he made them to be! It’s the most radical and life changing story there is!
Shepherd Pie: Well Amen to that. And As we sing again, let’s have all our Christmas characters up here on the platform. The Carol is ‘Away in a Manger’.
Angel Delight: Good choice but as we sing it, do remember that the line ‘no crying he makes’ is nonsense. Jesus was the Son of God but he was also a real baby not a fake one! And let’s remember this Christmas to hear what is actually in the Christmas stories rather than a sentimental cosy version that wouldn’t offend anyone.
Shepherd Pie: You’re so right Angel Delight!
Angel Delight: Why thank you, Shepherd Pie! Let’s stand and sing ‘Away in a Manger’
Carol: Away in Manger
Prayer by Shepherd Pie
Carol: See him lying on a bed of straw