As Benjamin Harris reminded us, St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in order to revitalise people’s understanding of the nativity, to free it from the gilded mosaics of the imperial and royal basilicas and present it as a real event with straw and the warm, wet breath of animals.
There was plenty of need for such reality. Around the same time, St Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching that the birth of Jesus was painless for Mary: ‘the curse of Eve is reversed in our Virgin, for she brought forth her Son without pain or sorrow … alone free from the universal malediction!’ (A wonderful example of theological assumption creating its own facts.)
Benjamin challenged us as artists to think how we might present the nativity with the same impact that St Francis did. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I am clear we must begin by identifying the problem for our time. If the issue for St Francis was co-option of the nativity by the ruling elites it was meant to challenge, what do we face? I think there are two things: santa-fication and de-historification. Let me take them in turn.
Santa-fication makes the nativity something which children believe in and enjoy, until the point when they are inducted into the world of adults and told, directly or indirectly, there is no such person. The nativity is presented as a childish thing, which has to be put away. Consequently, it isn’t treated seriously as a narrative: think of the Christmas octopus in ‘Love Actually’ as a manifestation of santa-fication. Of course, some of the re-tellings we get in schools are honest attempts to convey a very familiar story in a new way, but I’m more and more thinking that the fourth king’s arriving late and talking animals are masking the story rather than telling it. (And I say that as someone who wrote a puppet nativity entitled Camels and Christmas.)
The bigger problem is de-historification. The nativity is treated as a story, unanchored in time, space and causality, a floating bubble as disconnected from reality as one of Homer Simpson’s zoned-out thought sequences. It starts with an angel and a young girl, there’s a journey, a baby in a stable (aww), lambs, shepherds, wise men. But as soon as the wise men have gone home that’s it. The story in done, the bubble is complete; it floats away making no difference to the rest of life.
Now, I’m not going to deny new-born babies are astonishing things: ten months earlier they didn’t exist. But there have been lots of babies born in borrowed beds, many thousands born in alleyways and gutters. What makes this one special?
Well, he is special because he is the consolation of Israel (yes, he’s God, as well, and that’s quite special, but that’s not what those at his birth necessarily understood), the messiah who can bring in the Kingdom of God. He will do that specifically, physically, in a there and a when. A there which is still being fought over, and a when which connects with a whole lot of other whens. Our telling of the story has to mesh it irevokably into those places and times, so it cannot float away, leaving the Christmas baby a separate being from the crucified and risen messiah. We have to keep those two stories as one.
If we manage to do that it will make for a more difficult, deeper Christmas story, but one which, like St Francis’ has more of the breath of truth about it.