We’re not the first to yearn for a fresh take on the familiar. Medieval dramas grew increasingly, well, dramatic””and moved outside the church. Some scholars contend that the performances were kicked out for venturing too far from biblical texts.
Consider “The Second Shepherd’s Play,” staged in the later Middle Ages in Wakefield, England. It’s the tale of a hungry husband and wife who steal a lamb from nearby herdsmen and disguise it as their own infant to throw the shepherds off. The play concludes with the requisite worship of the Christ child, but the road to Bethlehem was paved with slapstick humor and bawdy jokes.
Yet perhaps there’s more going on, then and now, than boredom and questionable taste. As the story of the incarnation has been passed down, maybe we’ve worn away the rough edges and arrived at a manger scene that looks more like a royal chamber or a page from the Pottery Barn Kids catalog than a cave for smelly animals. The average Madonna and child on our Christmas cards don’t resemble the exhausted mothers and purplish, screaming newborns of real life. It’s all a bit too tidy to be credible.