A few years ago I went to a pantomime with a group of youngsters as one of their ‘responsible’ adults. The pantomime was the story of Cinderella and two things have stuck with me from the experience. Firstly was one of our youngsters, who thought of himself as a bit of a comedian, shouted out – “If the slipper was such a perfect fit, how come it fell of in the first place?” Fortunately the star of the show was very good at dealing with hecklers, and soon put him in his place!
But secondly, I remember the Narrator of the story, saying: “Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface.” He was of course referring to pumpkins turning into coaches, rats and mice turning into horses and footmen, and everything else that surrounds this fairy tale. It was most enjoyable fun and a bit of escapism that we associate with Christmas in more normal times.
I was some time later thinking about how I was going to present a reflection on the Christmas nativity scene, when for some unknown reason I made the connection with the words of that Narrator from the pantomime. “Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface.”
When I see the nativity scene, what do I see? Just sitting writing this diary entry, I can look up and see our crib set across the room. We have of course Mary and Joseph, two shepherds, a sheep and two lambs, a donkey, and for some reason a camel, that has arrived a bit early! In the centre is an empty manger, just waiting for the precious delivery. We also just above have a large star, ready to shine when it gets dark.
A perfect scene we could argue, that depicts the Gospel story as it is read to us on Christmas Day. We have had variations over the years, especially with the intervention of little hands who have at various times introduced other characters such as reindeer, a triceratops and even a gold painted Paddington Bear! But always the central scene is the same.
By means of a reflection, I decided to focus on each of the component characters individually. What is their story? Now, if I just take a few moments to consider each of the characters in turn, I can apply the question of, “Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface.”
Joseph. A young man, probably trying to do his very best to provide for his heavily pregnant new wife. Perhaps feeling that he has let her down, because despite being the one who should protect them all, can’t even find a place to stay. They are relegated to sharing with animals, probably in the cold, damp and dark. And on top of this he’s had a dream telling him that it’s God’s plan, and everything would be just fine. Little did he know what was to come.
Mary. A young lady, about to give birth to her first child, and not content with everything that entails, she, and her husband, find themselves miles away from the safety and comfort of their own home. They are in quite a desperate situation, having to make do with wherever they can manage to find. Added to that they will soon be surrounded by strangers, all telling her how wonderful and amazing it is that her baby has been born. As we hear in St Luke’s Gospel: “As for Mary,she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19). But what else must she have been thinking?
The shepherds. It was just an ordinary cold night out in the fields for them. Let’s not forget they didn’t have Christmas or anything else to look forward to at the time! What would have been their biggest worry sitting on the hill on that night? – and then after what they had experienced, what must have been going through their minds as they entered the stable?
And we can continue to do this with all of the characters and other aspects of the nativity scene. Angels, the stable itself, even the presence of the animals gives us, if you like, a window into that most important of moments in time. We can even perhaps relate it to the many similar situations in our world of today?
This time of Christmastide is an opportunity to consider what the nativity really means to us individually. There is an invitation to each of us to spend a short bit of time each day, perhaps looking over our own crib to reflect on the “Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface“ that we see in front of us.
This scene isn’t a fairytale, or the stage for another pantomime. It is the retelling of one of the greatest moments (alongside the passion and resurrection) in history. A reality that changed the world, not just a lovely picture for the front of a Christmas card.
Wishing everyone a Happy and Joyful Christmas!
Deacon Ian Black