The Christmas Day service at our school Chapel won’t be happening this year. However a few years ago this much anticipated event threw up an unexpected lesson in a particularly amusing way, unintentionally reminding us that we need to make space for the young people in our lives.
The Christmas Eucharist at our school invariably displays a nativity scene set up from the Crib service the night before. The nativity features the usual characters plus, as you will see, one or two others that I am sure even a creative reading of the Gospel accounts don’t allow for. One particular year after welcoming us all, the Chaplain gave his usual reassurance to the parents in the congregation that they need not worry about their children. Indeed they were free to wander around the Chapel and, as long as they weren’t actually screaming, mum and dad could just relax.
That was his first mistake.
The second was that at the start of the sermon he invited all the children to sit up at the front of the Chapel in full view of the entire congregation. To be fair he does this every year, it’s just that this year the Chapel was unusually full with some 400 people crammed in. As the pews disgorged large volumes of children, hitherto hidden behind pews and parents, into the aisle and down to the altar, the Chaplain visibly blanched, his face turning the same colour as his ecclesiastical robes.
As is traditional the Chaplain then discussed the real meaning of Christmas with the young flock seated at his feet. Working with children in an interactive way in front of a large audience is never easy, but the Very Reverend has experience in this area and manfully negotiated this tricky period of the service before going on to give his sermon while the children remained seated at the altar steps.
The Very Reverend spoke for a Very Long time. To their credit the children hung on well for the best part of the sermon but as they lost concentration they also lost that consciousness of self that comes from being under the gaze of several hundred adults, and seemed to forget where they were. As the sermon drew to a close and moved into the Eucharist, the Chaplain made his third, and in hindsight, most critical error. He neglected to send the children back to their parents.
At around this time the children’s gaze wandered and they started to realise that they were sitting by, and amongst, the carefully crafted nativity scene. There is a saying that you should never work with children and animals. I not sure that includes crafted animals from a nativity scene but given what happened, it should. Small hands started gravitating towards some of the more peripheral characters that the Gospel writers somehow failed to metion (not even the apocryphal texts record the presence of a Bengal tiger). It wasn’t long before some of the more central cast were under threat and soon one of the Wise Men was being savagely pecked by a penguin (don’t ask) to a mixed reaction from the now enthralled audience. I say mixed, but it was largely unbridled delight except for the horrified parents of the would be puppeteers. Puppeteers who, I might add, were now in complete control of what had very rapidly morphed from stuffed toys and alabaster models into full blown action figures.
At one point the protagonist of the Christmas story was in very real danger of being kidnapped by one of the girls (I like to think she was called Mary). As she headed down the aisle toward the door it looked like the return of Christ was very much in doubt. Due to the carnage at what now resembled a middle eastern war zone, one of the sheep got hooked onto the Lay minister’s robe and was dragged round and round the altar to the amusement of those receiving communion. It might be unedifying to say too much more, suffice to say that it is incredible how much damage a tiger (albeit a stuffed one) can do in the hands of a boy (albeit a small one). I am also not sure that one of the Shepherds will be tending his flocks anytime soon given he no longer has a head, and from now on it appears we will be having just two wise men at our nativity instead of the traditional three.
The unpredictability of working with children and young people is what makes it simultaneously so demanding and so rewarding. Stuffed penguins and tigers aside, what Matthew Mark and Luke do agree on is that Jesus had time for children. When his disciples tried to stop parents bringing their children to him, Jesus said ‘Let the little children come unto me for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ I am glad our Chaplain lets the children come to altar. If we can’t make space for them at Christmas time then we really are like the proverbial innkeeper. As we head into the New Year, if you yourself are involved with children and young people, as a parent, teacher or in any other capacity, remember that yours in a holy work.
Oh and good luck…