Watching school nativity plays is one of the pleasures of being a school governor.
I’ve seen a fair number these past years- stories about the sleepiest shepherd, the lost angel, the grumpy innkeeper, a fox come in from the woods, one even had some Martians from outer space.
Sometimes I have sighed and longed for a simple uncluttered telling of the story .
Yet the tradition of adding extra detail or fresh perspectives to the gospel story goes back a long way. Medieval paintings frequently included symbols to draw out meaning or make a new one – lilies, apples, shadows, light.
The story has also been relocated to different countries in the world. A wall mural in a church in Kalimpong India depicts Mary, Joseph , shepherds etc in the clothing of local Buddhists. I have a beautiful card where the events take place in a Tanzanian village and an exuberant picture book set in Australia. All a far cry from Palestine, as indeed were the paintings of the Flemish and Italian masters which have dominated western representation of the birth of Jesus.
Last week I saw the simplest of all crib scenes on the market square at Szentandre , a town outside Budapest, Hungary. An angel , Mary , Joseph , baby on a crib and an ox and the ass. But even that ancient pair are not in the original story but first appeared in the 4 th century.
Indeed Mary and Joseph were absent when the nativity was first illustrated. Early nativities refer to Isaiah 1.3 in which the ox and ass recognise the Lord. In ancient Hebrew thought, the ox was regarded as a clean animal, the ass an unclean one – the child in the manger is for both clean and unclean – Jew and Gentile. The now ever present image of the ox and ass symbolises inclusivity as fundamental to the Christian message .
The multiple and diverse imagining of the nativity in many contexts, including school nativity plays, is further expression of that inclusivity . The sleepy shepherd can remind us that the Christ child was for children not just adults , the fox , that all creation is made sacred by the presence of God, and the different lands, that it is a message for all the nations .