Thursday, 20 December 2012

Visions of the Nativity 3

Thursday evening  Breathing Space Communion services for Advent

Like most clergy, at this time of year I spend significant amounts of time attending children’s nativity plays and carol services, watching the Christmas story being told in a wide assortment of inventive ways. There is one from early in my ministry that I have never forgotten, though. It proceeded as you might expect, with Mary and Joseph, donkeys, cows and sheep, angels, shepherds and wise men shuffling gradually onto the stage. Then a song was sung, and the curtains came across. We all clapped enthusiastically, and thought it was over. Not so. The curtain swept back again, and there in the middle of the stable scene was Rudolph the red nosed reindeer – cue for another song. The curtain came across again, but we still hadn’t finished. It opened again to Santa, stuck up the chimney – another song, and then the process was repeated yet again to reveal Frosty the snowman…. Finally the performance drew to a close, with all these characters crowded round the crib… I have to confess I wondered how much unscrambling some priest or teacher might have to do in the future, and how many dreams might be shattered when they discovered that, no, Santa hadn’t actually visited the infant Jesus at all, and the stable didn’t have a chimney for him to be stuck up anyway.

The Adoration of the Magi. Antonio Vivarini 1420-1484
But the point of the whole business for that toddler group had been, of course, to involve every one of the children, and, somehow, to reflect all the things that mattered to them about Christmas in it. If that included reindeer, Santa and snowmen, so be it. And in the end that might just be more important than any attempt at Biblical authenticity. In fact, Christmas wouldn’t be good news if it were not so. The picture I have given you today, though more artistically sophisticated than a toddler nativity proclaims the same truth. This is a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, a subject very popular in the Renaissance. It is by the Venetian artist Vivarini, but it is a very typical portrayal. Wealthy patrons often commissioned pictures of this subject. Frankly, it gave an opportunity for a lot of bling; fine clothes, gold, powerful horses and any other sort of showoffery the artist could fit in, which, the patron hoped, would reflect well on him. Many even had themselves painted into the picture. I don’t know whether that is the case here, but in Florentine paintings, for example, there was often a member of the Medici family lurking somewhere in the scene, or some other rich nobleman.  The pictures varied in their detail of course, but the common factor in them, apart from the bling, was that they were always stuffed full of people, all sorts of people, not just the Magi themselves, who are the only ones the Bible refers to, but hangers on, servants, locals, cats, dogs, birds, and, in this case, trumpeting angels, the dove of the Holy Spirit and God the Father looking down from on high. Processions snake off into the background too; there are yet more people coming, desperate to crowd into this scene. All human life is here, not standing formally, stiffly in reverent lines, but talking to one another, tending to the horses, coming and going, understanding what they see, or not, but knowing somehow that it matters, that this is an occasion not to be missed.

And this great variety of people, it seems, is fine. It is fine by Mary and Joseph, who simply sit in the middle with their son and welcome all. It is fine by God, who looks down approvingly from his window in the heavens. The magi are foreigners, unschooled in the right ways of doing things, the proper observance of the Jewish law, but that is fine. They are welcome. The hangers on, page boys, and other assorted servants have come out of loyalty to their masters, but that is fine too; they are just as welcome to come and see and worship. Others have no doubt come out of mere curiosity, or for fun, or for a day out, or to escape from the daily grind. That is fine as well. It doesn’t matter if your motives are mixed or your life mixed up, if you don't know how to behave or what to say, if you are underdressed for meeting a king, or overdressed for kneeling in a stable; even if you had no intention of taking any of this seriously when you tagged along, and haven’t got the faintest idea what it is all about, you are welcome. I can’t see Rudolph, Santa or Frosty in this scene, but if they were here, I don’t think Mary and Joseph would mind at all.  

These well-peopled nativity scenes may have been an exercise in showoffery to some of those who commissioned and painted them, but they also have a powerful and quite subversive message in them.  Whoever you are, you are welcomed by God, rich as well as poor, mighty as well as humble, well-intentioned or not, clued up or completely confused. Like the two sons in the parable we heard tonight, we are all loved and treasured, whether we know it or not, and whatever it takes for us to realise it. God's love is for you, and for me. Jesus' birth is for us all
In the silence tonight, perhaps we might each imagine where we might have been painted in this scene. Where would we be? In the forefront, or hanging back. Standing and watching, or preferring to be busy at some task or other, off in the distance, feeling like we are latecomers, playing catch-up, or at the head of the procession, leading the way? Wherever we are and however we are tonight, we are welcome.   Amen

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