‘Second Angel from the Left’
My earliest Christmas memory is of my nursery school Nativity play, aged 4. The memory is not of the beauty of the candles, nor the harmonious singing, nor the rapturous applause of my parents. Instead it is of being elbowed all the way through the play by the first angel from the left who was next to me and was worried about toppling off the stage!
Nativity plays are an enduring memory not only of children but of their loving and long-suffering parents and grand-parents. One mother I know shared her son’s indignation when he was not cast as Joseph in his school play. You see Ted, although at a Catholic school, was by virtue of his mother also Jewish. How ridiculous, he felt at the age of 8, that the lead Jewish male character was not being played by the only Jew in the school!
The reality is that, in the nativity play of life, most of us are called to be angels or shepherds or donkey drivers and are not cast as Joseph or Mary. St Ignatius invites us to contemplate the stable at Bethlehem and imagine ourselves within the scene. We can certainly adore the Mother and child, or even ask Joseph how he is feeling. But we should also spend time imagining the chat we might have with the walk-on characters.
‘Was there really no room, Mr Innkeeper?’ ‘Did you all just leave your sheep on the hillside or did they follow you down?’ ‘How long did you and the other angels spend practicing that wonderful Gloria?’ ‘What did it feel like when you walked into that stable?’ ‘When did you realise that you were at the turning point of history?’
Turning points in history have been mentioned a lot recently in our national recalling of the life of Nelson Mandela. In his story too there are not just lead actors – Winnie, de Klerk, the Tambos, the Arch – but also walk-on characters. They too have a story to tell and it is much closer to our own stories: the teacher who first educated this intriguing young mind, the men who sparred with him in the boxing ring, the guards who watched the transform-ation of 27 years, the tannie who brought him his tea at the Union Buildings, the nurses who cared for him in the final days. One character that stood out for me is Cecil Williams, the actor with whom Madiba, disguised as his chauffeur, travelled the country in 1962. What were the conversations between this gay, white man and the black lawyer turned freedom fighter? How did that friendship influence Madiba? Williams was arrested at the same time – he too was an activist – but his story is just a foot note in history.
The temptation of Mandela’s story and of Jesus’ – ‘the greatest story ever told’ – is that they are too grand for us to imagine ourselves as having a role. But Jesus birth was not about Him: it was and is about us. We each have our own role to play in that great Nativity Play that began in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and which continues in history until the end of time. As the carol puts it: “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today” (from ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ by Rev Phillips Brooks).