I’ll be honest, the validity of comparing Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, to a toilet roll had largely escaped me up to now, that is, until the launch of the Ship of Fools and Bible Society’s co-created ‘Roll on Christmas’ Facebook nativity.
This inventive animation has demanded I re-think the gospel’s description of the birth of Christ. Perhaps the cloying sentimental nostalgia of repeated school performances has altered my understanding, turning the earth-bound reality of God’s incarnation into a seasonally re-heated episode of ‘Gavin & Stacey’. Let’s face it, most of us succumb to gawping at the lives of air-brushed minor celebrities, the photo-shopped, cropped nip & tuck images constantly fed us by MTV or Kerri Catona’s ‘My Road to Recovery’.
Extraordinarily, the Bible seems very matter-of-fact in its description of Joseph – disposable, colourless, light-weight (oh alright, the toilet-roll comparison is artificial at best). It’s just that, I’m not sure I buy into all the humble, unassuming, plodding nature of Joseph that the gospels hand down to us. I’m a husband and father of two. If either of my offspring had miraculously materialised out of the ether, I’d be harbouring some major doubts that the likes of which might be temporarily relieved by a nip or two of a strong malt.
Nativity plays gift us a one-time opportunity to inhabit characters caught up in a divine drama, one which is earthily anchored within a very human context. A drama with such utterly spell-binding and momentous implications, it’s a wonder it hasn’t formed the basis of the longest-running cartoon strip in the Jewish Chronicle. Tony Jordan’s BBC ‘Nativity’ did it immense credit.
Sure the ‘average’ nativity play is likely to embellish the gospel’s bald facts, may encroach on fiction, and even play out a head mistress’ mildly diverting soap-opera fantasies. Humans are given over to story-telling, to creatively coupling a compelling narrative with a contemporary twist.
En route to a legally-binding census carried out by the notoriously twitchy Herod, no doubt officiated by overzealous provincial apparatchiks, Joseph dutifully protects his expectant partner by seeking water, rest and a roof over their head – the measure of a modest, considerate, entirely reasonable man. But, slice through the murky mythology surrounding the Christmas story and there’s a need to ‘cut to the chase’. We have an incredulous husband, hotlist of burning questions on the tip of his tongue, a baby conceived by a mysterious ‘donor’, a partner who hasn’t yet ‘fessed-up, …oh, and the obligatory appearance of an angel who cryptically announces something about being the ‘chosen one’, or some such startlingly indigestible news. Cue emotional meltdown. That’s before the contractions have begun. Oh, hang on, the contractions have begun. You and I can book a room at a Premier Inn for £29 a night, via the lastminute.com app on a smartphone, Joseph couldn’t.
Christian Research’s poll conducted amongst 1,018 UK adults (the majority self-identifying Christians) uncovered that 40% disagreed that nativity plays ‘tend to make the birth of Jesus seem like a made-up story’, while a similar proportion agreed. So… what might this mean?
Reality TV serves up storylines bubbling with emotional intensity but warped by the agendas of self-serving producers. The nativity purports to describe how God comes to dwell amongst us. Hang on! This is an event of seismic magnitude, right? It contains the sorts of ingredients that the News of the World (RIP) used to cook-up and explosively publish from time-to-time. Might not the results infer that Mr. and Mrs. Average, you, me and the milkman, find the Biblical account mind-bogglingly difficult to grapple with? The Christmas story is incredible news. In fact, isn’t that the point, it is scarcely credible news. How on earth are we to deal with it?
How much more so to a contemporary audience brought-up on a diet of three-part docudramas that purportedly explain everything from the origin of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider’s attempt to reveal the ‘God particle’ or Richard Dawkins laying-down the fundamental tenets of his godless religion.
News that innkeeper and Herod roles have grown in popularity, contrasted with Mary and Joseph which have halved over time (voted most wanted role by only 10% of males and females respectively), perhaps signals an implicit desire to reject inherited stereotypes, ditch the token tea-towels and get to grips with someone more tangible, more authentic and more resonant. Of our frail human condition - the best we can hope for is to pocket £250 quid when (hopefully) ‘You’ve Been Framed’ shows footage of little Johnny, back-end of the wiseman’s camel, toppling into the orchestra pit. It’s human drama maybe, but without the divine spark.
Lastly, 52% from the same poll claim that they’d be least prepared to forego their computer or internet during Christmas. Might this, too, hint at our desire to tell ‘our Christmas story’, to connect, share and invite others to enter the unfolding drama of our Christmas celebrations? From that pie-eyed Boxing day email to an expression of friendship to a relative half-way across the globe to a link showing a YouTube clip of grandma cheating at pulling the crackers, with our human lives as the backdrop and with Christ taking the lead role, I’ll venture that’s where the drama’s at.