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10-BOLLAN

New twists on an old Christmas story

TV-themed nativity’s are all the rage, but THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS fears a Gospel wrapped in tinsel - By Fr John Bollan

Everyone loves a Nativity play. Hearing the children sing ‘A Wean in a Manger’ would bring a tear to a glass eye. Better still is the unintentional hilarity of missed cues, fluffed lines and the baby Jesus doll being subjected to some rough handling by a stage-struck Mary and Joseph. As a young priest in another St Joseph’s, this time in Clarkston, I was in the front row of a Nativity play where one of the three Wise Men forgot what gift he was meant to be presenting to the new-born King. Knowing that it was a lunchbox in fancy wrapping, he boldly declaimed, ‘Here’s your sandwiches!’ Naturally, there was much laughter from the audience and that unscripted one-liner even made it into the Glasgow Herald’s diary.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending my own primary school’s Christmas show. As always, the Nativity was presented by the infant classes, beautifully decked out in a variety of very professional costumes—not a tea towel in sight. Those who are unfamiliar with contemporary Nativity plays may be slightly surprised to learn that the days of a narrator reading the Gospel narrative while the Biblical characters ‘do their thing’ is long gone. Perhaps off the back of films like Love Actually and the Nativity! series, most schools look for a fresh angle on an ancient story. Indeed, there is something of a cottage industry writing Nativity plays with a modern twist, telling the story from the perspective of a peripheral or even non-existent character: the fourth wise man, a lazy shepherd, a camel (you get the idea).

This year St Joseph’s opted for Strictly Nativity which, as the title suggests, was a fusion of the infancy narratives and a certain well-known ballroom dance competition. In this retelling, the story is woven through a sequence of dance routines over which Caesar Augustus, the innkeeper’s wife, and a camel cast a critical eye. Given the popularity of Strictly, it’s easy to see why the show went down so well with the audience in the school hall. It was genuinely funny and the kids were clearly enjoying it as much as the grown-ups, myself included.

I did find myself wondering, though, what future awaits the Nativity play as we know it? I would not be surprised if next year I rolled up to see The Great Bethlehem Bake-Off or I’m a Shepherd: Get Me Out of Here. Looking round at the young parents of these children, I’m not even sure how familiar some of them are with the real story of Christmas.

As the number of the ‘unchurched’ increases and the religious literacy of the population in general declines, these lovely plays face something of an existential crisis. If all we have to go on for the next 20 years or so are clever retellings of the Nativity based on popular culture, we might end up with a very different kind of Christmas story: a Chinese-whispered version of the Gospel wrapped in tinsel and catchy songs but with something missing at its heart.

In many respects, our modern Nativity plays originated in the medieval mystery plays and also owe something to St Francis of Assisi’s original ‘live’ crib scene in the hill town of Greccio. They are meant to draw us in to the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh in our midst. While it’s great to have a show which both entertains and touches the heart with its inherent cuteness, the Nativity play is meant to remind us of ‘the reason for the season.’ Who knows, perhaps the wheel will turn full circle and what will constitute a novel presentation of the Nativity is a more back-to-basics narration of the first Christmas, dressing gowns, tea towels and all?

 

Last week the parish played host to a day of recollection for the priests of the diocese. This mini-retreat was led by a former priest of the diocese and a son of this parish, Bishop Brian McGee of Argyll and the Isles. Our own bishop, Bishop John Keenan, also joined us for the day.

Bishop Brian invited us to revisit the Examination of Conscience in the daily exercise of our ministry. While it is a necessary part of the preparation for going to Confession, the Bishop encouraged the participants to make a thoroughgoing self-examination part of our assessment of our own faithfulness to the Lord in the circumstances of our everyday lives. Rather than burden ourselves with a sense of our unworthiness, it should begin, he told us, from an awareness of being loved by God. Love, therefore, becomes the benchmark of all that we say and do as priests and ministers of the Lord’s joy.

It was lovely to have Brian back in the parish: indeed, it was his first visit since being ‘made up’ back in February of this year. I did pose for a photograph with him and Bishop John but, alas, the subdued lighting in the Church meant that our faces are shrouded in shadow. Some would say that is already an improvement.

Since beginning this meandering parish diary back in October, I have found that some readers like to get in touch with me directly. Sometimes they just want to express their appreciation or to ask a question (e.g. ‘Do you get paid by the word?’). I am happy to follow up on two pieces of correspondence I have received over the past few weeks. One concerned my entirely justified frustration at losing at a previous Quiz Night. One lady was quite concerned that our opponents, known as they are to the constabulary, might take exception to me airing my views in such a public way. Let me reassure the dear lady that that is not how we do things at St Joseph’s.

In fact, at the December Quiz Night it so happened that a significant number of their team were, well let’s just say ‘not at liberty’ to be present. Worse still, all but two members of my own team—Les Quizerables—were otherwise engaged that night. In the spirit of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when the British and the Germans emerged from the trenches for a game of football, we decided to put aside our enmity, band together with our rivals and form a one-off team under the name of ‘The Pipes of Peace.’ And lo, victory was ours! Surely a pre-Christmas miracle?

Just as heart-warming was a message enquiring about Deacon Paul, whose battle with cancer I have touched on a couple of times. In last week’s column, I mentioned a challenge I had made Paul to turn up to Mass on Gaudete Sunday, decked out in the rose vestments I had picked up for him while out in Rome with a parish pilgrimage. As it stood, I doubted he would make it to church but I was insistent that he would still wear them at home, even with his lip trembling.

To our delight, not only was Paul able to get to Mass, he was also able to read the Gospel and pose for the obligatory photos afterwards. It’s not ‘pink to make the congregation wink’ now, is it Deacon Paul?! That said, I now owe him £5 and a copy of The Western Catholic Calendar. But it was worth it.

 

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