Christmas nativity plays are fraught with danger. The tea towels on the shepherds’ heads can unravel or Baby Jesus can be tipped from his manger (a crime of biblical proportions when using a real baby). And there’s the constant risk of someone fudging their lines so appallingly that the audience is overcome with hysterics.
Parents perch on the edge of their seats, hoping against hope their progeny will reveal themselves as a star in the making—after all, Orsen Wells got one of his early breaks when he trod the boards as Mary in a school nativity play!
My first ‘serious’ nativity play was when I was about 13. The venue was the Wellington Town Hall and I was cast as Mary. The occasion was made even more splendid because I had a huge crush on ‘Joseph’. It could have been the start of something beautiful. Me, seated on a hay bale for most of the evening. Him, standing companionably at my side. Both of us gazing at the light bulb that doubled for Baby Jesus.
Our future might have been assured, had it not been for an interventionist wise man (well, wise woman, actually—also love struck for Joseph). Moments before leaving the dressing room, she bailed me up: ‘Don’t think you can try anything out there just because you’re alone!’ she hissed. Alone? That’s right, just me and Joseph … and an audience of 2000!
Nativity plays often bear so little similarity to the real deal. One scriptwriter complained that whenever a modern city audience hears the word ‘stable’, they think of a comfortable warm church with clean straw, a quiet baby and an odourless cow. To counter this, he set one of his Christmas plays in a garage so people would think of dust, draughts, petrol smells and a car that only just fits. This, he said, was a more realistic representation for today’s audiences.
Favourite nativity scene
One of my favourite nativity plays has no shepherds, no angels, no Mary or Joseph and no wise men. Instead, on an otherwise bare stage, is an unsightly pile of damp dirt on a plastic tarpaulin. A smartly dressed man walks quietly and expectedly down the aisle. The congregation murmur: It’s the mayor! What’s he doing here?
To their amazement, their mayor proceeds to remove his shoes and socks. He rolls up his trousers, exposing his legs below the knee. Hark! The herald angels sing: Glory to the new-born king … the congregation’s voices falter as their attention is captured by the strange sight onstage. They watch as this prominent man, who has never shown his face in their church before, begins to walk around in the mud. How unpleasant! they protest. What’s this got to do with Christmas?
The music stops and, as the mayor continues his trudging, some words are heard: Jesus had always been God by nature, but when the time came, he stripped himself of every advantage and became human. He lived a life of utter obedience, to the point of death …’ (Philippians chapter 2, paraphrased).
God with us, trudging around in the dirt and disrepair of our troubled world because he chose to come near. God with us, even though he knew it would hurt, but because he loves us. You can’t get any more risky than that!
Christian Tyson for 16 years was in NZ Salvation Army Media and now holds a senior Sallies corporate role. Married to Keith (the Aussie) they have four adult children.