Local people have put their hearts into the Aldermaston Nativity Play ever since the first production 58 years ago. This lovely photograph (about 1980) of Olive Ford in the role of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is shown here as a token of their dedication.
"Considering the state the world is in, how could people possibly wish each other a happy Christmas?" It’s a valid comment.
All around us are advertisements for Christmas hampers and accessories of the festive season, yet at the same time we are horror-struck by events taking place in the Middle East and around the world. But the comment misses an important truth, one which is brought out in the York Nativity Play.
The Christ Child wasn’t born into a world of ‘good cheer’. It was a world of military oppression, deceit and greed, wealth and power for a few and penury for many others. The traditional festivities leave this out but the medieval writers of this play acknowledged the way the world is.
Herod massacres the children. Like countless other rulers, he supposes that the best way to deal with inconvenient people is to kill them off. The Holy Family are refugees; they flee to Egypt, not even knowing where it is. They are poor and powerless; they cannot understand what is going on. The Play also acknowledges Joseph’s anguish when he finds that his teenage wife is already pregnant. If it were publicly known she could be stoned to death, as still happens in the Middle East today. Come what may, he has to cover for her: “I dread the law as much as thou”.
Simeon greets the Child, holding him in his arms, but he warns Mary of his torture and death “for the weal of all wretches a-dying on hill on a day” There is joy but no ‘good cheer’ and no sentimentality. One of the kings, foreseeing what is to come, presents his gift saying “This myrrh will I give for thy graving”. It is a harsh world that the Christ Child is entering. Harsh not only because of the cruelties and conflicts of mankind. Mary embraces her Child, saying “Hail by whose might all this world was first begun, darkness and light”. The Christ Child comes into a world of dark chances and changes, which are inescapable aspects of the material creation. Everything positive can turn negative: the surgeon’s knife is a tool for healing but for another man it is a weapon. Fire gives warmth and comfort, but it can also consume. Water nourishes all that lives, but it can also drown and destroy.
Christmas celebrates the presence of the perfect in a world which is imperfect. The Incarnation did not abolish fear, pain and betrayal. It took place in the midst of them. As a grown man, the Christ Child would meet their full force. This too is foreseen in the Play. Yet overall the Play is colourful and joyful. It celebrates the enduring strength of courage, trust and generosity and the renewal of unconditional Love, in spite of everything.
[Performances of this year's York Mystery play are on Thursday and Friday at 8 pm and Saturday and Sunday at 7pm in Aldermaston Church of St Mary the Virgin].