Angela Tilby: Nativity plays can sow the seeds of faith

13 December 2019

YouTube/Church of England

Lily, Kari, and Jasper dress as ‘wise men’ in a video, filmed at St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, for the Church of England’s annual Christmas campaign #FollowTheStar

Lily, Kari, and Jasper dress as ‘wise men’ in a video, filmed at St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, for the Church of England’s annual Christmas campaign #FollowTheStar

ONLY once did I appear in a school nativity play. Sadly, I funked my first opportunity when I had been cast as a page to one of the three kings (all girls). Part of the costume was, shockingly by today’s standards, to be “blacked-up”. I also had to take my glasses off. I was terrified, and felt so sick at the prospect of being on stage at all that on the morning of the performance I persuaded my mother that I was going to be sick. She had to make my excuses to school, and I took to my bed with a sense of shame and great relief. The next year, my mother took no chances and insisted that I spent the afternoon before the play at a friend’s house, where I was less likely to succumb to histrionics.

So it was that I finally made my debut the following year as the prophet Isaiah, standing on the school stage with a tea towel round my head and wearing a long garment of pyjama material. I still vividly recall my opening words: “Out of the mist of years, I, Isaiah come before you.” I then proclaimed: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” while behind me a hidden chorus joined in with “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

I was intensely annoyed by the fact that one of the chorus, my friend Vicky, never pronounced the “g” at the end of words; so it was always “the everlastin’ Father, the Prince of Peace”. The Angel Gabriel was played by a tall girl with straight brown hair and a face that, at least in my memory, strangely resembled an eagle’s. She wore magnificent gold wings, which fell from her shoulders. They were obviously more fragile than they looked, because they were replaced the next year by a much less impressive pair, which would have been hopeless in flight.

Apart from appearing to Mary, Gabriel provided an epilogue, standing on steps above the stage and reciting from Revelation 21: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea.”

Whoever wrote the text for this nativity play showed extraordinary theological dexterity. The innovative ending, with Gabriel as the source of John’s vision, linked the incarnation to the hope of heaven. When, as a priest, I read the passage from Revelation 21 at funerals, I always had our school nativity in the back of my mind, with Gabriel as an eagle announcing that God’s home was now with mortals.

All of which is to say that we perhaps underestimate the power of nativity plays to inspire the imagination and sow the seeds of faith.

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