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Nativity Dramas: Why an Ancient Practice Might Work Well for the MTV Generation

For centuries churches have played out the Christmas story in drama and song. Todd Farley looks far back into the origins of nativity scenes and liturgical Christmas dramas, and then offers some intriguing ideas for enlivening worship today. His ideas for a complete Christmas service involving the entire congregation are not spelled out in detail; every church would need to consider their own resources and abilities. If your congregation decides to try any of these ideas, we would welcome feedback; let Todd know, and let us know too at info@reformedworship.org.

—ERB

Once upon a time, the Children of God were so visual that they celebrated life with national festivals, learned from stories, and actually believed that actions spoke louder than words. Their example may be something we—in a postmodern, MTV world—can learn from.

An Idea That Grew

In the first centuries after Jesus died, the catacombs of Rome were one of the few places Christians could hide, live—and die. Severa was one of those Christians. And die she did. Because she had lived her life as an offering to the Christ child, her Christian family and friends engraved on her epitaph images of the Magi coming to adore Jesus in the arms of Mary, the first of many nativity scenes that would appear in centuries to come (see p. 18; in Harries, p. 13).

One of those nativity scenes became famous in the fourth century when pilgrims, following the example of Helena, mother of Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem to visit places associated with Christ’s life. The pilgrims went home with souvenir flasks showing in regal glory the now classic scene of Mary, Baby Jesus, Joseph, shepherds, and wise men—and an animal or two (Harries, p. 15).

Three hundred years later, the pilgrims were still making that journey. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem (seventh century), looked for a way to minister to those pilgrims and found it in the creation of a cycle of hymns, which formed a short nativity play (Weber, p. 53). Sophronius staged his liturgical drama using props like the concha, the symbol of the manger, as the place of both birth and sacrifice (Schnusenberg, p. 87). He filled his liturgy with symbolic images and movement. For centuries the clergy themselves were the performers, and the plays were part of the Introit (the beginning of the worship service) (Nicoll, p. 177).

In the 800s Amalarius of Metz took liturgical drama to its greatest height. He created a full Christmas Liturgy of dramas. From the beginning to the end, the clergy gestured, moved, and even danced as they sang and spoke the liturgy (Schnusenberg, pp. 167-356). Although pilgrims borrowed these liturgical ideas and carried them home, Western Christians did not make the liturgy as dramatic as Sophronius’s or Amalarius’s plays until the eleventh century, when a drama called Quem Queritis (Whom do you seek?) was produced for the Easter Introit. Quickly the Easter drama was followed by the production of a Christmas play. These dramas became so popular that there are over four hundred versions of Quem Queritis!

Perhaps the plays become too popular. By the twelfth century the churches were so crowded that the dramas had to move to the streets. Eventually the dramas lost their tie to the church and were no longer performed by clergy. The city folk took over, and what was once sacred became profane as ministry became mere entertainment.

Fast-Forward to the 21st Century

Now, hundreds of years later, many churches still celebrate Christmas and Easter with “special” dramas. Perhaps we should recapture the joyous song of the angels, the processional of the shepherds and Magi with their gifts. Perhaps we should consider Martin Luther’s words:

The angels had no bigger congregation than two shepherds in the field. They were filled with too great joy for words. And we who hear this message, “Behold, I bring you good tidings,” never feel one spark of joy. I hate myself because when I see him laid in the manger, in the lap of his mother, and hear the Angels sing, my heart does not leap into flame. With what good reason should we all despise ourselves that we remain so cold when this word is spoken to us over which all men should dance and leap and burn for joy!

—The Martin Luther Christmas Book, p. 47

So, shall we dance? And, if so, how might that look in our liturgies?

Enriching Contempory Songs with Dance and Drama

Some songs are given to quick interpretation by a dancer or mime. They enable worship planners to integrate drama and dance into the song service or around the offering, announcements, or other liturgical elements. While the drama is taking place, the song can be sung by a choir or a soloist.

The popular song “Mary, Did You Know” (Michael English; http://www.walkthroughlife.com/midis/christmas/marydiduknow.htm), for example, offers wonderful images from the life of Christ. A choreography based on that song might feature one person playing Mary with three to five dancers/mimes enacting each of the scenes mentioned in the song. Each scene can be acted out as a tableau vivant (living statue). Two other dance-able, mime-able Christmas songs with Mary as the central character who reflects on the life of Christ are “Still Her Little Child” (Ray Boltz) and “Breath of Heaven” (Amy Grant).

To present the nativity as a tableau vivant in your worship, create a typical “nativity scene” with Joseph, Mary, Jesus, shepherds, wise men, and angels. You have two options:

First, you could have the characters act, dance, or mime their stories one at a time and then freeze into their place in the picture, eventually revealing the classic scene.

Or you could start with the tableau already in place and then “activate” each character, one at a time, to tell their story and then return to their frozen position in the tableau (similar to the Scripture Tableaux described in RW 75, pp. 22-23).

The segment lengths are determined by your need, and can include various arts from drama, dance, mime, video, painting, or sculpture as illustrators of that dramatic segment.

A Christmas Drama with the Whole Congregation

In the ancient Christmas play liturgy of Amalarius, we find an even more radical possibility—the whole worship service can be part of the dramatic unfolding of the Christmas story. It might look something like this:

  • Start with a single person in the front singing “O Come, O Come Immanuel.”
  • While the song is sung and possibly danced, Mary, Joseph, and child come to the center of the “stage,” freezing in the first position of the classic nativity scene.
  • Then the choir processes into the church in two sections. The first group processes in from the back of the sanctuary and moves forward with simple steps.
  • They sing a “Kyrie Eleison” (for example, SNC 52 or 53) as the voice of the shepherds (representing Israel), going about the work of life, waiting for the Messiah. They end their procession at the front of the church, but still amongst the congregation.
  • The “shepherds’” procession is parenthetically interrupted as a short drama of the Magi is played out. Three people enter from the side seeking the “King.” The Magi might ask the congregation for the whereabouts of the newborn King; the congregation responds that they do not know.
  • Herod should be sitting somewhere in the midst of the congregation. He directs the Magi (through his counselors’ advice) to Bethlehem (on stage). They freeze, wait for the last of the “Gloria” (see next bullet), and are the last characters to join the nativity scene.
  • The second grouping of the choir comes in as the angelic host. Entering from the front of the room (from whatever entrance is furthest forward or actually on the “stage”), they announce the coming of the Lord in a “Gloria in excelsis” (for example, SNC 115 or 116, or a more traditional complete setting of the Gloria).
  • As the Gloria is presented, it should start as a simple procession of the angels, then add a dance troupe, then the final procession of shepherds (only a few actually join the nativity tableau; the rest should join the “angelic choir”), followed by wise men moving into the nativity tableau.
  • The “Gloria” ends with the whole congregation singing a familiar Christmas hymn that incorporates the Gloria (for example, “Angels We Have Heard on High”).
  • At this point in the service you could present the tableau vivant as the sermon or as illustrations of the sermon: if illustrations, then the pastor should come from or through the tableau in order to be associated with the unfolding drama.
  • The dramatic service could then end with the benediction, which leads to a recessional of the whole congregation as they sing “Joy to the World”—the dancers and choir would lead the people out into the world (out of the sanctuary) to proclaim the good news!

Adoration of the Magi. Epitaph of Severa from the Catacomb of Priscilla. Photo by Art Resource, NY.Used by permisssion.

 

Excerpt

Your nativity, O Christ our God, has shone upon the world with the light of knowledge: for thereby they who adored the stars through a star were taught to worship you, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Dayspring from on high.

O Lord, Glory to You!

—A prayer of the Greek Orthodox Church for Christmas Vespers

 

For Further Reading
  • Richard Harries, Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996).
  • Martin Luther and Roland Herbert Bainton, The Martin Luther Christmas Book (Philadephia: Westminster Press, 1948).
  • Allardyce Nicoll, Masks, Mimes and Miracles: Studies in the Popular Theater (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963).
  • Christine Catharina Schnusenberg, Relationship Between the Church and the Theatre: Exemplified by Selected Writings of the Church Fathers and by Liturgical Texts Until Amalarius of Metz—775-852 A.D. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1988).
  • Hans Ruedi Weber, Immanuel: The Coming of Jesus in Art and the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1984).