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A 21st Century Nativity

It was a beautiful night with a New Moon in South Tawton, Devon, England. And the world was about to change forever...

Okay, so it wasn't a star, but it's a lovely picture and you've got to work with what you've got.

An angel stood outside the magnificent granite and thatch 15th century Church House which has been at the heart of the South Tawton community for more than 500 years.

Okay, she was there a bit earlier than the moon because it's still daylight, but she was deep in prayer before our story started, wondering exactly what words to use when she was due to speak to a young lady later that evening. Did you know that the most common phrase in the Bible is 'fear not?' There are 365 mentions of that phrase -- one for every day of the year. So, the angel thought to herself, 'let's go with the flow. "Fear not" is as good as it gets.'

Now this was not just any old angel, it was the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger between God and humanity. Wisely, she went up the steps so she could be seen properly and checked her microphone before she delivered her message.

Below her, a young girl called Mary, was sweeping the porch together with two narrators. One was called Beth and the other was wearing reindeer horns. Those narrators got everywhere in those days.

Gabriel told Mary that she was very highly favoured and was going to have God's baby, whom she would call Jesus. Mary wasn't sure about that to start with because she wasn't married, but she was a brave girl and, let's face it, when an angel turns up, you tend to believe it. The 'fear not' bit certainly seemed to have worked.

Mary's betrothed husband Joseph saw an angel too -- in fact he saw at least two, one of whom was wearing tinsel -- so he knew that it was all okay about Mary being pregnant. He saw some incredibly early Kings from the East too but he told them to go home because they'd got the timing wrong. But he said they'd be very welcome later, when the baby was born.

There were lots of folks in South Tau ... sorry, Nazareth, that evening so it's surprising they didn't see or hear the angel but God is good at keeping things secret when He needs to. The words 'secret' and 'sacred' come from the same root, which makes a lot of sense.

Ah! Hang on ... all the people were there because the Emperor Augustus had turned up out of the blue. That's him in the lych gate in front of the church. You'd think the locals would be impressed by an actual Emperor, but he had to shout to get them to stop talking long enough to listen.

He told all the villagers that they would have to return to their home-towns in order for there to be a census so they could all be taxed correctly. Emperor Augustus got a big boo and hiss from the crowd.

Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem, where Joseph's family came from, in order to register for the census. Bethlehem was a long way away, and Mary was pregnant when they had to go, but luckily, there were some friendly shepherds nearby -- and some friendly musicians too so people could sing along with the events as they unfolded -- and the shepherds thought, 'She'll need a donkey to ride on!'

Incidentally, there's no mention of a donkey in the Nativity story in the Gospel of St. Luke. That bit, and the whole idea of the Nativity scene, complete with cattle and a donkey, was invented by St. Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century. Way-to-go St. Francis! It's been fun ever since.

So some pretty fierce negotiations went on over purchasing the donkey for Mary (the donkey's name is Nazareth which is an amazing coincidence, when you think about it). But the shepherds got a good deal in the end.

But Mary was a bit of a softy so she didn't ride the donkey after all. In fact, she got a nice lady to lead Nazareth all the way to Bethlehem. But there's no truth in the rumour about Mary and Joseph driving there in a Peugeot...

If you look closely, you can see that Mary took her broom with her, which actually turned out to be a very good idea.

After a long, long walk, they arrived in Bethlehem. But it was even more crowded than South Taw ... sorry, Nazareth, and they couldn't find anywhere to stay.

Okay, there might have been a Peugeot outside the Inn, but it belonged to the Landlord, not to Mary and Joseph, honest. And although the landlord at the Inn in Bethlehem is usually a bit of a baddie and turns the Holy Couple away, this time, the landlord -- whose name was Tony -- had a good reason to be full. He said his Inn was stuffed with Syrian refugees.

Still, he said they could sleep in the stable and gave them the keys. So Mary and Joseph went to the stable, which looked a bit like the altar at St. Andrew's Church ... although that's obviously only a coincidence. And Mary was very grateful that she'd brought her broom because she could make sure the stable was clean and tidy for the baby to be born in.

It's a good thing that it was a very large stable because lots and lots of people came along to see Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and to sing about them. And the whole church sorry! stable was full of Christmas trees from the Christmas tree festival earlier that day so it looked just lovely.

You can't see it very well (because it was too dark for my camera) but the donkey's there too on the right. And here's a bit of an innovation. The baby Jesus was born just after Mary and Joseph got to the altar sorry! stable and, instead of a manger, he's sleeping in a state-of-the-art baby stroller. Very sensible too because that's a genuine four-week-old baby in there and if Paul Seaton-Burn, the Rector, had tried to put him in a manger full of straw, you probably wouldn't have heard the congregation singing for the yelling of a baby covered in straw prickles.

Not all babies are as good as the baby Jesus. But then he did have swaddling bands so that would probably have protected him from the tickly straw.

Then lots more angels turned up -- and a sheep. Which was fortunate because the shepherds came too, though I don't have a picture of that. And it was the very same shepherds who'd bought Mary the donkey so wasn't it nice that they got to see the baby? The kings came back too. Actually, they weren't kings but Magi, meaning 'astrologer-priests' which is always a bit of an embarrassment to conventional Christians. And, luckily for us, the Bible doesn't actually say how many. We assume three because of the gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh but there could easily have been four or more. Which there were that particular night.

And don't forget the Christmas chickens. They're in a cage to the left. There definitely would have been chickens. And very well-behaved chickens they were too. But not lobsters, no matter what you've have seen in Love Actually. Lobsters would have been silly that far from the sea.

So it all ended very happily, and the people sang a few more songs, accompanied by the minstrels, and then there was tea and cake and mulled wine and mince pies in Church House and we all went home happily.

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