Walking Backwards to Christmas

Walking Backwards to Christmas

by Stephen Cottrell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780664261863
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication date: 09/18/2015
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 875,592
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford and was formerly Bishop of Reading.

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction

Sometimes people ask me how I find time to write. The only sensible answer I can come up with is that we all find time for the things that really give us joy.

It has been a joy to write this book. Encouraged by the success of The Nail, which retold the Good Friday story through the voices of different characters involved in the drama of that day, this book retells the Christmas story. But because this story is so well known—possibly the only bit of the Christian story that is still familiar to most people— I have used the device of telling the story backwards. The idea for this came to me in a flash when I first saw Albert Herbert’s painting Nativity with Burning Bush, which is reproduced on the front cover of this book. From left to right we see Joseph (or is it one of the shepherds?); then the infant Jesus being held up for him to see; then Mary herself; and then the bright, vivid image of the burning bush. It is a strange and evocative painting. There is (for me, at any rate) a movement across the canvas that appears to be going back- wards from the person who beholds the presence of Christ, to Christ himself, and then to Mary, who so obviously has a central place in the story, and then behind Mary to the burning bush.

In the traditional iconography of the Orthodox Church it is not unusual for the burning bush, through which Moses heard the voice of God, to be a sign of the Virgin Mary. This is not something we are used to in Western art. But with deceptively brilliant simplicity, Herbert’s primitive and deliberately childlike depictions of the biblical narrative draw together our contemporary adoration of Christ, with the nativity itself, and with God’s revelation of himself and his name to Moses—that name, and that word which is made flesh in Christ. The painting does what all good paintings do. A complex web of ideas— and in this case a complex narrative—is captured in a single image. I hope my book does what good books can do, which is get underneath the skin of a story and begin to tell it in such a way as we can see ourselves in it, aiming to uncover the complex web of motive and response. I had been thinking for some time of writing a book about the Christmas story; the apparent backwards movement in this painting, and the way the painting dramatically introduces the revelation to Moses in the burning bush alongside the birth of Christ, suggested a backwards way of telling the story. From this moment the book was born. And once I remembered that Christmas hit by the Goons I had a title for the book as well. Writing it was a joyful thing.

The Nail has been used by many parishes, not just as a book to read and study in Lent, but also liturgically as a series of Good Friday meditations. When I started writing this book I had similar ideas about how it might be used at Christmas, even as a sort of adult nativity play, with people taking different parts and retelling the story from their perspective. I suppose this could still be done, but what I have found exciting about writing this book is the way the retelling of the story from the perspective of different people in it has led me to encounter quite directly the many uncertainties and horrors in what turns out to be quite a dark story. These bits— the intrigues of Herod, the massacre of the innocents, the uncertainties of Joseph and Zechariah—are not usually told. I have been reminded that although the Christmas story is well known, most of us have learned it from school nativity plays and carols. On the whole this version of the story is more concerned with light than darkness. The backwards approach I have taken here allows the movement to be in the opposite direction. Hence I decided to start with the presentation of Christ in the Temple as the Light of the World (and by the way, this is another scene that Albert Herbert has depicted in his paintings) and end with the prophecies of Isaiah and the revelation to Moses. I was also struck by the central place that women have in the drama, and I have enjoyed trying to inhabit their experience and find their voice. This is why I have chosen to start with Anna, rather than Simeon. And so that I could uncover the whole narrative I found it useful to hear the voice of another witness to the birth itself; since there was no one in the Scriptures I could turn to, I have used the innkeeper’s wife, a character who appears nowhere in Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives, but is a popular fixture in nativity plays. I hope this poetic license, along with a great many others, will be forgiven. But in every other aspect of the book, it has been meditating on the biblical story that has been my chief inspiration. I simply want to tell the story—in its light and in its darkness—in a way that will enable people to encounter it as if for the first time. Consequently, it is not your usual Christmas book. But I hope it is one that will stimulate and inspire.

As I was writing I found aspects of myself in the different characters. I think you will find the same. I hope that you may be encouraged to put on some sort of adult nativity play, based around the idea of first-person narratives retelling the story, although the chapters here are probably a bit long to be used.

I think it is best to read the book alone, like a novel. But if you know of other people doing the same, then why not spend an evening, perhaps just before Christmas, responding together to what you have read—and, hopefully, to the new vistas in the story that this book has opened up. Just asking these few questions should be enough for a useful and enjoyable evening’s discussion. It might even help you start some sort of book club in your church community or neighborhood.

Which person in the story did you most relate to?

What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?

How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?

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