From Heaven above to you I bring
A blessed word of good tiding.
Yea, News of joy and mirth this day
To all mankind I sing and say.
— The Angel from The Oberufer Shepherds’ Play
It’s a dark December morning and a community of parents and children has gathered in the basement of our little school building. Several times each year, for class plays, orchestra concerts and the like, our basement transforms into a performance space. Usually during these times we find the basement woefully inadequate for the grand visions of the presentations we’ve imagined. But somehow today the low ceilings and crowded walls feel like they’re holding something sacred as we feel each other’s breath warm the air.
Today the basement seems just right.
The teachers have been practicing the play and its music since the school’s Michaelmas celebration at the end of September. Because this was the first year for The Oberufer Shepherds’ Play to be performed at this school, it was all brand new to many of the teachers. With everything else that they had to do to care for their students and the school, sometimes they worried that the play was just too much. But as they got dressed and made up in a nearby classroom they could hear the building anticipation of the host gathering in the basement and their nervousness transformed into excited expectation. Finally it was time. The angel tapped her star on the floor and the crowd turned around to watch the faculty enter in costume.
“Bless O Lord the Way we Tread
Bless Our Coming and our Going
Bless Our Death with Thy Death’s Leaven
That to Us Thy Life be Given.”
The Oberufer Shepherd’s Play is a version of the traditional nativity play that is often performed at Waldorf Schools around the world. The play is one of a set of three plays that were a tradition carried on by farmers who lived on the island of Oberufer in the Danube east of Vienna. The songs and words of the play were passed on by word of mouth for generations and each year a farmer directed his fellows in their parts. The play is a bit of folklore and tradition that was discovered by a teacher and friend of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education. Steiner appreciated the simplicity and beauty of the story and he was inspired to perform the play to help those folk traditions carry on.
The play is a traditional nativity story. We meet Mary and Joseph. We hear their strife about going to pay tribute. We sympathize as they go from inn to inn looking for a place to stay. As the grade school children watch and listen their hearts and imaginations are living the story. This fact is made all the more poignant by the fact that the actors are their beloved teachers.
But what makes this play so unique and treasured is that it is not all about the reverent Mary and Joseph. This play is all about the shepherds. Just at the moment when we are assured that Mary and Joseph and their newborn baby are safe and happy in their cozy, hay-filled manger, the shepherds arrive to lighten the scene. The shepherds make us laugh and as we watch their antics we feel could be one of them. They fuss and fight. They eat a boisterously sloppy meal. And finally they fall asleep under the stars on a clear night.
It is then that the shepherds bring the true message of this play alive. While they are sleeping the Angel Gabriel comes to them and tells them the joyful news of the birth of the baby.
“Joy, Shepherds, Joy
And Good Tidings
To You and All Mankind I Bring.”
Why is this the most significant point of the play? What is it about the shepherds’ part of the story that is so important?
In this play, the angel comes to the shepherds with a message. She doesn’t deliver it to the greatest kings, wealthiest traders or wisest men. Instead she approaches the lowliest and most humble of humanity. Through the shepherds, who remind us so much of ourselves, we are able to see that Christ’s message is even for us.
It wasn’t until I became a Waldorf teacher that I began working with a vision of Christ that suddenly seemed meaningful and relevant in my life. I learned that according to some Christ was the representative human being and that all of us, even lowly shepherds, have Christ within.
The shepherds, and their pleasing simplicity, remind us of this fact.
It is often asked at Waldorf Schools why we perform The Shepherds’ Play. In a time when there is often a multitude of differing religious impulses living within one school, is it appropriate for the teachers to perform a story that so clearly belongs to just one of them? Just as Waldorf students study so many of the world’s religions, the teachers could easily perform a play from one of them. To me, the important thing is that a play is being performed. A message is being sent. And in today’s fast-paced, increasingly material world this seems more important than anything. In a culture where the holiday season makes us think most of iPods, Playstation 3’s and “free shipping”, the shepherds’ message of simplicity feels like an antidote.
I know that on that cold December morning, when snow had already been on the ground for weeks and the holiday season was ready to sweep us away, every heart in that crowded basement was warmed as we felt, indeed lived, together the message that even the lowest among us have the Christ within.
Meredith Floyd-Preston is a Waldorf teacher and mother of three who blogs about her adventures with her students at A Waldorf Journey.