In the past couple of weeks, on my commute to work, I’ve heard Elton John’s Step Into Christmas on a number of occasions. I think this year it has gained a new level of popularity thanks to his role in the long-awaited (and,
in my opinion, slightly disappointing ) John Lewis Christmas advert! I like the song. As with most Christmas pop songs it’s a feel good tune with inoffensive lyrics.
This past weekend, as I am sure many others did (or will do), I was at a nativity service. It’s a standard tradition throughout many churches where kids dress us and act out the Christmas story. There’s always an overenthusiastic child who will make sure everyone knows they deserve an Oscar; there’s always a grumpy child who didn’t get picked to be Joseph for another year; and inevitably there’s missed lines, AWOL actors, tears, laughter, and more. And we love it (well most of us do!) Now you might wonder what Elton John has to do with a church nativity play (asides from the obvious answer – Christmas!) and it’s a good question to ask.
As I was watching the nativity and as they sang Away in a Manger, I realised that up and down the country children know the words to this carol off by heart (or at least the first verse!) and they’ll know the story of the shepherds, the wise men, and the birth of Christ in a stable “because there was no room at the inn.” Putting aside historical accuracy for a moment, isn’t it quite startling to think that so many children at a young age literally step into Christmas by re-enacting the narrative of Christ’s birth and likely will remember this for the rest of their lives? I believe the model of immersive interaction through the nativity is something quite significant.
Oliver O’Donovan suggests that the church is a recapitulation of the Christ-event – that is, through the life of the church we essentially re-enact the narrative of Christ. O’Donovan uses the advent of Christ, the passion of Christ, and his exaltation to suggest the church should be a gathering community with baptism as a sign of this (i.e. it is missional); a suffering community with communion as its sign (i.e. it is a prophetic witness); a glad community (i.e. it lives in the hope of resurrection); and a community that speaks the words of God (which draws the previous three together). In more user-friendly language, we step into the story of Christ. I’m not suggesting that we all dress up and act out the bible texts every week…but I’m not suggesting something too far away from that! I wonder what a more immersive church might be like, one where we see ourselves involved in God’s story in the world and acting this out every time we gather as the church. I wonder what might change if our churches didn’t just learn about the bible, but crawled into its skin and walked around in it (to channel some Harper Lee).
Church “is a recapitulation of the Christ-event, by which the community participates in the acts and experiences which the Representative first undertook on its behalf.”The Desire of Nations, 171
I’m thinking a lot about ethics at the moment as I prepare to teach the class next term (you can still sign up for a class!) and one of the questions that keeps coming back to me is this: how do we form people who are ready to encounter a complex world? As I read for the class I came across this penetrating question ‘how then should one act in order to live well?’ The author, Ruth Valerio, explores an Aristotelian framework which ‘shies away from being prescriptive’ recognising that ‘people’s situations vary’ and quoting Aristotle suggests ‘the agents themselves have to consider the circumstances relating to the occasion.’ In essence she is saying that instead of learning rules or following principles, we must be formed in ways that help us to respond to situations with actions that promote goodness. I think this is a profound shift from responding to situations to being proactive to ensure we are presently ready to respond. Some forms of ethics give us rules or principles to analyse difficult situations and I think our churches often do the same – we learn the “rules” of Christianity and then try to apply these “principles” to our lives. But I think we need to move to a different model. When we are immersed in the narrative, when we inhabit the story, when we walk around in its “skin”, we are formed in advance with the resources that we need to encounter a complex world. I don’t think by any means this is silver bullet and suddenly ethical dilemmas will fade away – my thought is a lot more limited. This year, as we watch children step into Christmas during their nativity play, maybe in churches we can ask ourselves this question: In 2019 how can we all step into the Christ-event?
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using email@example.com or through social media if that’s where you see it!
 O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 174-192.
 Valerio, Just Living, 185.