Waiting for the Messiah

Rosie Hoban 10 November 2018

We wait. We wait for the children dressed as sheep, shepherds and wise men to assemble calmly.

Mary and the angel, looking serene, are ready to begin the slow walk through the Church. The star is held high and majestic music fills the small Holy Spirit Church in East Thornbury, Victoria. The Nativity play is about to begin, as it does in churches around the world every Christmas. For centuries, Christians have gathered to reenact the birth of Jesus, the moment that transformed the world.

COMMUNITY CELEBRATION

At Holy Spirit the play has become a prologue to the Christmas Eve Mass, bringing to a symbolic conclusion the period of Advent. It is appropriate the community celebrates the birth of Jesus in the Christmas Mass after the children have told the Christmas story in such a warm and innocent way.

The star, made years ago and embellished over the years, is carried high into the Church accompanied by beautiful classical music. The orchestra comprises young people, most of whom have played a role in the Nativity play since the parish began the ritual 25 years ago. While many are no longer churchgoers, they still assemble each year for the Christmas Eve Mass. The conductor, Leo Zarucky now based in the US, took on the gig in 2017 while home holidaying over Christmas. His twin brothers and a sister also perform in the orchestra.

Parishioner Mary Hollingsworth remembers about 25 years ago being asked by the then parish priest, Fr Vin Corbett, to organise something on Christmas Eve that would involve children. So, she did. Within a couple of years, John Samanna and Anne Maslin, had taken it on and written a script, formalising the play and giving it a structure that is maintained today. They ‘produced’ the play for five years refining the costumes and lines each year. Every couple of years a new parent, or couple, take over as ‘producers’, recruit children from Holy Spirit Primary School, add a new costume or two, organise the rehearsals and somehow, pull it off.

A PLAY OF IMPORTANCE

Kevin and Kathy Jansz are lining up for their third year. They love it and recognise the play’s importance for the children and the wider parish community.

‘We enjoyed doing it so much that this year instead of going to NSW for Christmas with our family, they are coming to Melbourne to us, and a niece and nephew will take part in the nativity play. It’s important to our family,’ Kathy said.

Their two children, Julia 11 and David, 9, both Holy Spirit Primary School students, have performed in the play for a few years, and are looking forward to this Christmas. They are also learning the guitar and hope to be able to join the orchestra one day. Succession planning at its best.

Kevin said rehearsals give them the chance to explain to the kids the importance of the Christmas Eve Mass.

‘A lot of school families don’t come to Mass so this is also a great opportunity for our parish to welcome everyone. If people feel that sense of welcome at Christmas Eve, they know our church is a place where they belong’, Kevin said.

A REAL STORY

John Samanna’s script was never just about the children playing a part in a heart-warming play, it has always been about the real story, about bringing people closer to God.

The play starts with darkness. The narrator, usually one of the children too old for the play, but still connected to the community, leads the congregation, talking about humanity’s longing for peace and hope. It mentions the hopes of people before Jesus and how despite their struggles to live according to God’s will, they continually failed.

The star that is carried through the church is a symbol of the coming of light and hope and peace. It is a new beginning in our relationship with God that dawns with the birth of Jesus. Everyone in the play gathers around Jesus.

‘Our parish community looks forward to it. As we gather in the Church on Christmas Eve, you can feel the sense of anticipation, people are waiting’, John said.

A CONTINUING TRADITION

Anne once thought the Nativity play would die out as children from the churchgoing families left primary school. But she is pleased to have been wrong and attributes much of the energy to John who works to keep young people connected to the parish community through the Christmas Eve play and Mass.

The Christmas Eve orchestra began in 2003 when then parishioner Dr Daryl Barclay, who is now Director of the St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir in Melbourne, arranged the music for various instruments, including the violin, cello, trumpet, flute, clarinet, trombone, euphonium, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone.

JESUS' LOVE NOW LIGHTS THE WORLD

‘John starts months before the Christmas Eve Mass contacting young people we know who play instruments, asking them to be part of the orchestra. They come because they do feel part of this community’, Anne said.

Mary Hollingsworth’s daughters, Therese and Josephine, now in their 20s, have played the cello at various times. As children they also performed in the Nativity.

The play ends with the promise that ‘Jesus’ love now lights the world’. The children then leave the sanctuary and walk back out into the congregation, following the Christmas star and the Holy Family, symbolising that it is through following Jesus that love, peace and joy enters the world.

The orchestra, all familiar with the play, then performs ‘We Follow The Christmas Star’. Christmas Eve Mass begins.

Our wait is over.

Editorial disclosure: I am part of the Holy Spirit St Anthony Parish. I also had a stint as ‘producer’, along with my husband Jim Coffey, and our children Michael, Ellie and Sarah, played many of the roles over the years. It remains important to us.

Images: Julia Jansz narrates the Nativity play at Christmas Eve Mass, while Wise Man David Jansz waits in the pews. Tristan Jackson, from Westgarth Primary School and Julia Jansz, from Holy Spirit Primary School, are Joseph and Mary.