Just finished reading this brilliant book by Bishop Stephen Cottrell. The cover bills it “The must-read book for the season” and the book is dedicated, in the author’s own words, to “all those who thought they knew the story well”. I’m guessing Bible-reading, book-loving vicars fall into that category, but, in any case, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on this reading experience.
In an intriguing twist on the familiar biblical narrative, the book begins with Anna, and runs, chronologically-speaking, more or less backwards to Isaiah the prophet and Moses. Along the way we hear the voices – eleven in total – of some of those caught up in this story we revisit each Christmas-time. Some are the characters we would expect to find here: Mary and Joseph, one of the wise men and a shepherd. But others are voices whose detail the author has had to create from the wider scriptures and their context. In doing so, I would say he has created entirely plausible characters, who add depth and new or different insights to the familiar story.
In his introduction, Stephen Cottrell suggests the book is best read alone, but that it also lends itself to group discussion after the solo read. To aid discussion, he offers his readers three prompt questions:
Which person in the story did you most relate to?
For me, it wasn’t so much relating to one particular person more than the others, as connecting with insights from particular thoughts or moments in their individual stories.
What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
Each story was a delight – I enjoyed them all. There are some shockingly dark and gruesome moments portrayed here, but I felt it was good to be reminded that Jesus’ birth wasn’t the pastel-coloured perfection we often depict it as. And there were surprises on each and every page – those small insights, fresh thoughts or unusual angles I’d never considered before.
How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?
It added real depth to the people whose story it is. And the book also reminded me how diverse people’s experiences of Jesus can be. Both of these are good things for a vicar to bear in mind as she prepares to tell the story again this Christmas-time.