A Very Quiet Nativity

In previous years I have enjoyed using Pat Rapp’s excellent “Noisy Nativity” as the basis of an improvised nativity. An adult narrates the story and the children join in with various noises as you go along. It’s great fun, and was my first thought when I found myself planning a session at short notice for an unknown number of children, of unknown ages, for tomorrow’s service.

But then I remembered that the session, which takes places during the sermon, is happening in an area which, though somewhat removed from the main body of the church, is not separated from it by anything even vaguely soundproof. So anything with “noisy” in the title is obviously out! This inspired me to devised a Very Quiet Nativity, with actions for the children to join in with (silently!) instead of noises. Here it is, in case it’s any use to anyone else:

 

Actions:

Angel – flap hands like wings

Donkey – hands on head like ears

Stable – form roof shape with hands

Shepherds – looking, hand above eyes

Wise men – crowns, hands sticking up each side of head

Star – as for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Baby – as if rocking a baby

 

Script:

One day Mary was amazed because suddenly an ANGEL appeared and told her she was going to have a BABY called Jesus.

Mary and her husband Joseph set of to Bethlehem on their DONKEY. Mary was very tired because it was nearly time for her to have her BABY.

There was no room at the inn, so Mary and Joseph had to stay in a STABLE and that’s where BABY Jesus was born.

Near Bethlehem were some SHEPHERDS looking after their sheep. Suddenly the SHEPHERDS saw some ANGELS who told them about BABY Jesus. The ANGELS sang a beautiful song praising God and then the SHEPHERDS hurried off to the STABLE to see BABY Jesus.

A long way away were some WISE MEN who saw a special STAR in the sky. The WISE MEN decided to follow the STAR, which led them to the STABLE where they gave some special presents to BABY Jesus.

And so everyone gathered in the STABLE: Mary and Joseph and their DONKEY, the SHEPHERDS and their sheep, the WISE MEN with their presents. Above the STABLE the STAR shone and the ANGELS sang. And in the middle of everything, most important of all, was the little BABY, Jesus.

 

Having practiced it in front of the mirror, I suspect it may lead to quite a lot of (rather loud!) laughter, but it should be fun! Feel free to use and/or adapt if useful.

Day 20: Questioning God #adventbookclub

What struck me about today’s reading (Luke 1.34-18) is the juxtaposition of Mary’s wholehearted commitment to God’s plan for her, and her questioning of what that plan might be. On the one hand, she is asking “how can this be?” but on the other she is saying “let it be with me according to your word”. And it seems to me that the two are not incompatible. It is possible, indeed desirable, to simultaneously follow God’s call and ask questions about it, trust and question, live with the “yes!” and the “how?”.

In fact, doesn’t the one enrich the other? If we had no questions about what God is calling us to, if it all seemed clear and safe and easy, what kind of faith would it take to respond? Not much. But if we demand to have all our questions answered before we will take the risk of following where God leads, that’s really no kind of faith at all. We are called to both trust and question, to live with the tension of doubting and believing. That is what faith is all about.

Day 19: Don’t hurry: perplexed and pondering #adventbookclub

Today’s reading is a very familiar one: the Annunciation. I have already heard it read at half a dozen carol services this year. But it’s a passage I love, and I’ve always identified strongly with Mary in this bit of the story. Her reaction to this astonishing divine encounter is not a dramatic one. She is perplexed. She considers what is being said to her. And she responds with powerful simplicity. But she takes the encounter deeply to heart, and is changed by it.

Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be”, which inevitably brings to mind one of my favourite verses of scripture, Luke 2.19: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. The picture we get of Mary here is one of a contemplative, a deep thinker, turning over in her mind the extraordinary things God is doing in her life, deeply assimilating the experience of divine revelation. 

How do we react to encounter with the divine? Do we rush to tell someone, to do something? Or do we ponder it in our hearts, and go on pondering it, even as we say yes to God’s plans for us?

it is perhaps my own faith journey which makes me prefer the latter. I have never experienced a sudden encounter with God, a road-to-Damascus moment. Rather, I have drawn closer to God (and will, I trust, continue to) by increments, pondering each tiny development along the way. I daresay that is due more to my own nature than any particular insight into the workings of God, but it’s helpful to know that I’m in good company with Mary, another of life’s ponderers!

Day 18: Zechariah: the man who had waited too long #adventbookclub

It has never made sense to me to see Zechariah’s dumbness as a punishment. Punishment for what? For being amazed, incredulous even, at this most unlikely of angelic announcements? It seems rather unfair. I like Maggi’s interpretation of it as an answer to Zechariah’s request for a sign. But I think it might also be something else.

It’s a silence. A space. A literal silence, but also a space for Zechariah to adjust to this life-changing news. We all need time to think, to process things, to pray. Sometimes that comes in the form of literal silence (though rarely by being struck dumb!), sometimes in a change of rhythm, or a life-giving space. Sometimes it’s a long time, a retreat or pilgrimage, sometimes it’s a snatched half-minute behind the sacristy door (giving away my secrets here!).

But such spaces, such silences, are particularly necessary when our life seems to be changing direction. Time for discernment, for reflection, for adjustment, time to make our peace with God’s plans for us. And it seems to me that is just what Zechariah is given here. And it works – when he speaks again after his long silence, it is in praise of what God has done.

Sometimes we choose to take time out, whether because we want to or think we ought to. Other times the choice is made for us, as it is for Zechariah. I have been suffering from vertigo for the last couple of weeks and at times it has forced me, quite literally, to stop and sit down. I didn’t choose it, any more than Zechariah chose to lose the power of speech (and to be honest I’m very fed up with it now). But it has forced me to slow down at least a little, to pause occasionally in the hectic dash towards Christmas. And perhaps that’s exactly what I needed to help me follow God’s path this Advent, though the means have been very far from what I would have chosen.

Day 17: Unclean lips and the problem of language #adventbookclub

Who among us hasn’t felt inadequate to the task God has given us? I know I have. I do most of the time, actually. But that must be nothing compared to what Isaiah felt in this passage (Isaiah 6.1-8), coming face-to-face with God. Yet in spite of that terrifying sense of his own unworthiness, he says to God “Here am I, send me.”

It seems to me that the nearer we come to God, the more inadequate we feel. How can I possibly be up to the task of serving a God so wonderful, awe-inspiring, terrifying? It could be enough to stop us daring to even try. We can never reach a point of being worthy of God’s calling. And it’s that realisation that frees us up to follow the call. God does not call us because of what we can do, what words we can use, what power we have. He calls us in spite of our inadequacies. He works through us in spite of everything we can’t do. Because actually we can’t do anything unless God equips us for it. And so we follow his call, trusting that he will enable us to follow it.

It sounds a bit circular, but it isn’t – it’s the most liberating thing of all. We don’t have to be capable, strong, up to the job. Because God works in and through our weakness, our mess, our mistakes. And it is that realisation which enables us to say “Here am I, send me.”

Day 16: Already and not yet #adventbookclub

I have always had a soft spot for John the Baptist. I love his story: his strident proclamation of the light that is to come, his unconventional approach (camel hair, anyone?), his incredulity and humility at being asked to baptise Christ. In today’s passage (John 1.19-28) we see John being interrogated by the representatives of the Pharisees, demanding to know who he is. This is one of those passages I can’t read without hearing music in my head, in this case The Record of John by Orlando Gibbons:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Sagh_XC_-A

I love the emphatic way John corrects people’s assumptions about who he is. He refuses to let his ministry be defined by anyone else’s expectations. He ministers on the edge, outside the categories people expect, following God’s unique call for him. He must have had moments when he wondered where God was leading him. Certainly he was sometimes amazed at what was asked of him, as when Jesus came to him for baptism. But whatever pressure he came under, and even facing death, he refused to be swayed from his mission.

I think all of us can learn something from John’s radically counter-cultural way of being. Something about refusing to be defined by what people expect, refusing to limit how God might use us. And perhaps then we too can become that voice crying in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord”, even as we heed that call in our own observance of Advent. 

Day 15: Every valley shall be exalted #adventbookclub

Maggi’s description of the fens, and the skies above them, reminded me of my first visit to Norfolk. Amazed by the flatness of it all, I exclaimed “look! you can see as far as you can see!” (and have been much-mocked for it ever since). It was the wideness of the horizons that most struck me.

I’m not sure that sort of flat landscape is quite what Isaiah means when he talks about valleys being exalted and hills laid low. But the wide open skies which draw the attention upwards can perhaps tell us something about what he’s getting at. Just as the exceptionally flat landscape draws out attention up to the wide sky, so Isaiah’s imagery draws our attention up and away from the stuff of everyday life, to the things of God’s kingdom.

Another parallel is in the wideness and openness of a flat landscape. God’s kingdom too, as described by Isaiah, is wide and open, ready to include everyone. And in this passage (Isaiah 40.1-5,9-11) we see the widest possible portrait of God’s character: ruler and shepherd, righteous judge and loving carer. We may feel more drawn to one aspect or other of that description, but we need to know that full breadth of God’s character, to make sense of the breadth of our own experience of God and of life. 

Day 14: The beginning of the end #adventbookclub

There is much I could pick up from today’s reflection on Habakkuk 2.1-3, 3.16-19, but what struck me most was the idea of rejoicing in imperfection. Even when things seem to be as bad as they could be, when everything around him is falling apart, Habakkuk says “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

Maggi’s reflection about “the lesson … not to wait for circumstances to improve before I start to celebrate life” (Beginnings and Endings page 70) struck a chord with me. I’m something of a perfectionist, and it’s a valuable lesson to learn that things don’t have to be perfect for us to rejoice in them. It made me think about my own ministry, so very far from perfect, with so much more that could be done, so much that could be done better. But in the midst of that, there is much to rejoice in. Today at Christingle, the children and adults stood in a circle around church, each face lit up by a candle in the dark, as we sang together. And it was a brief, perfect moment. I rejoice in that, and will try to hold onto it, and above all I thank God for it.

So much around me seems chaotic. There is so much more to be done than I can do. There are so many families I know who will have a miserable Christmas, and I am helpless in the face of that misery. But still the light shines in the darkness. There is so much that is imperfect, and yet I will give thanks to the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Day 13: Not in the fire… #adventbookclub

As someone who is very much a contemplative at heart, who feels most closely connected with God in silence and stillness, I love today’s passage (1 Kings 19.9-18). Elijah finds God not in any of the loud, obvious, impressive places he might have expected, but in the absolute silence.

For me, it is perhaps the other way round. I expect to find God in silence. And when I have a week like this one, where silence and stillness are in short supply, I find it harder to find God at all. But lately I’ve been thinking that actually the silence which Elijah heard is always there. Yes, it’s harder to hear amid the noise and chaos, but it’s always there underneath, because God is always there. And we can learn to listen to the silence, to be attentive to God’s presence, in any situation. I am trying to learn to listen through the noise to the silence beyond it.

Day 12: Eat, drink, sleep #adventbookclub

Today I have been feeling a bit like Elijah in this passage (1 Kings 19.1-9): at the end of my reserves of energy, wandering alone in the desert. But this evening I feel like God has given me what I most needed, just as he did to Elijah. I have been to my Sevens Group, which is like an oasis in the midst of all the crazy busyness. There are five of us (used to be seven, hence the name!) and we eat and drink together, laugh together, pray for each other, and above all sit together in silence, trying to be attentive to God’s presence. It was just what I needed.

But it wasn’t what I wanted to do this evening. I wanted to curl up in a corner somewhere and ignore the world. I went because I said I would (and because it was my turn to bring the wine!). And however reluctantly I arrived, by the time I left I felt centred in God again, not completely, but just enough to carry on.

And that got me thinking. So often God doesn’t give us what we want or what we ask for, but what we need. Just as he does to Elijah in this passage. Elijah asks God for death, but what he receives is the stuff of life. He thinks he knows what he needs, but God knows better. So often we complain that God hasn’t done what we asked him to, what we wanted. Perhaps we should stop and look instead at what God has done. It might just be exactly what we need.