Advent: Path to the Stable: a Footsteps event
Our south transept is usually filled with church clutter - chairs, tables, old boxes of candles etc. For this event we moved the altar 90 degrees and postioned it under the stained glass window.
A variety of screens, purple and shiny cloths were used to transform the space and a simple advent wreath (four purple candles and one white) was placed on the altar as a focus.
The children came into the church through the side door, which added to the air of expectancy as they came into a space they didn't know well.
In the introduction we spoke about Advent as a time of watching and waiting for the king who is coming and also of our own journey to meet him:
"The king isn't just the tiny baby in the stable but also the adult Jesus and Christ in Majesty. The one who will come, the one who has come and the one who will come again... The king of the past, present and future all at the same time..."
We were lucky in that our stained glass window fitted this theme as well as the pictures on display - the baby Jesus and Mary at the top, Christ in Majesty in the centre window with the cross beneath.
We also talked about the four candles of the Advent wreath being like the four points of the compass.
The stories of Advent point the way to Jesus and help us to know which way to go on our journey. The children were given a little purple organza bag to collect symbols of their Advent journey; here they received tiny compasses.
Station 1: Jesse Tree (Patriarchs)
The group all went together to the Jesse Tree. We explained that a Jesse tree was a sort of family tree for Jesus because he was a descendant of King David who was the son of Jesse.
The biblical characters were represented by a mixture of symbols (ark for Noah, coat for Jospeh etc) and pictures (Isaiah, John the Baptist) from the stories the children would hear later on.
We also included some photos of the present day congregation (inlcuding our pre-school service) to show that Jesus's family goes on and on. The children took away a small felt leaf from this station.
Leading away from the tree were "roots" made from scrap pieces of leather.
These pointed in the direction of the different advent stories. The children were split into three groups to visit the different stations, which could be done in any order.
Station 2: The prophets
"This is the light of the prophets..." Each station began the story with these words and the lighting of a lantern.
Who is a prophet and what does a prophet do?
"A prophet is someone who sees and hears what is really going on in the world... Prophets are not always easy to listen to.
They speak the truth, even when people don't want to hear it..."
The storyteller used a variety of ideas about who prophets are before moving on to talk about particular prophets, beginning with the prophet Isaiah who, in the picture we used, is shown having a vision of the birth of Jesus.
This was followed by showing pictures of some of the other prophets (with care being taken to include both men and women prophets) and asking the children if they knew any of their stories.
The storyteller then talked about the world today and how much needs changing where people are still suffering through war, famine, poverty and natural disasters. We still need prophets today to speak the truth and show us injustice...
The children were asked to think about someone in need and put a strip of bandage around their wrists as a sign of their prayers or thoughts for them.
"Every century and every age needs its prophets. Who knows who might be a prophet? It could be any one of us..."
As they left the station the children were given purple glasses to help them look at the world in an "Advent kind of way."
Station 3: John the Baptist
The story of John the Baptist began at the high altar with the story of his father Zechariah. As the storyteller was relatively inexperienced she had someone to help with the "props" and actions.
Zechariah's role in the temple was described and the children were shown the incense holder and small boxes of frankincense were passed around for them to smell (with care being taken for anyone with allergies.)
"One day whilst Zechariah was praying in the temple, he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Look! This is what he saw." (The storyteller pointed upwards to one of the painted wooden angels on the chancel roof.)
The story continued with Zechariah refusing to believe the angel's message: "You didn't believe God's message. You wouldn't listen to my words, so your words will be taken away. You will be silent until the day my promise comes true..."
After John is born, Zechariah's words come flooding back... John grows up to become a man...
At this point we asked everyone to get up and travel with us to the font at the far end of the church as a symbol of John's journey to the River Jordan. We talked to them about baptism being a fresh start and asked them to think about something in their lives that might need a fresh start as they walked to the font.
We created a desert by covering the area around the font with hessian and made rough and crooked paths with rocks and stones.
We began by showing a picture of John with his wild hair and camel skin clothes and shared some of his message. We talked about how John's job was to prepare the way for the one who would come after him by making the crooked roads straight and the rough ways smooth.
We invited everyone to choose a shiny blue shimmer stone: "Put the stone flat on your hand and see how it sparkles and reflects the light. Perhaps it reminds you of the angel who came to Zechariah. Feel how cold it is.
Perhaps it reminds you of the cold water of the river that John used to baptize people.
"Feel how smooth it is. Perhaps it reminds you of John preparing a way for the Lord by making the rough paths smooth and the crooked roads straight."
We then invited everyone to place their smooth and shiny stone stone somewhere in our desert landscape. They chose another stone to take away with them.
Station 4: Mary
This station began with Eve, the first mother.
We turned our prayer tree into the tree of knowledge by draping it with green organza and hanging it with artificial fruit.
We talked about how Adam and Eve were tempted to eat from the tree of knowledge and, giving into that temptation, were thrown out of the garden of Eden. (The picture of Adam and Eve was turned over.)
"God was still with them, but it was harder for them to know Him." (A glittery cloth was placed over the picture).
For hundreds and hundreds of years God's people wanted to know God but it was hard to hear him: "Sometimes they felt they couldn't reach God at all. The prophets gave them messages from God, and sometimes angels came, but isn't always easy to hear what prophets and angels have to tell you."
For the next part of the story we draped the pulpit with pink and blue cloths. Our angel Gabriel crib figure was placed on top of the pulpit, with the Mary figure on a table below.
The story continued with Gabriel's visit to Mary and her decision to say "Yes" to God.
We used the letters E, V and A firstly to spell Eva (the Latin form of Eve) and then reversing it to show "Ave" Gabriel's greeting to Mary.
When Mary said "Yes" and Jesus was born things were reversed and people could find their way back to God.
We asked everyone to take a coloured feather, hold it gently and think about difficult decisions they needed to make or things they found difficult to do. They were then asked to place the feather in the bowl near the figure of Mary, who said yes to a decision that seemed impossible. They chose another feather to take away.
We told the children that they were going to have a chance to create something which, in its physical form, would not last very long but the idea might stay with them for ever... They were asked to use the materials to capture something they had been feeling or thinking about that they thought was really important.
We spread squares of purple cloth on the floor and asked the children to work together to create a response.
They were given a variety of natural and shiny materials to choose from. These included: fir cones, wool, wheat, stones, shells, leaves, artichoke heads (these were very popular!), shiny paper, coloured ribbons and mirrors.
The children worked in groups of 5 or 6.
Most of the responses were abstract (though one group did John the Baptist!)
Some looked highly symbolic though we found we didn't get much opportunity to talk with the groups about what they were doing. Some began well and then kept adding more and more material...
We took photos of the response and sent them to school or to the children who had come along to the Footsteps event.
The children were given squash and tree shaped biscuits. This meant we had only about half the children working on the creative response at one time, which was a necessity with our lack of space.
Before the children left we asked them to stand and face our great west window which is made up of tiny panes of glass.
"The light shines through all the different patterns. Each person down the ages has played a part in the whole story, like one of these panes of glass, carrying the light.
We have heard the stories of the Prophets, of Mary, of John the Baptist - but now we remember all the people whose stories we have never heard, whose names we do not know, but who have all played a part in the whole story, right from the beginning of the world until now."
We asked the children to focus on one pane of light and in silence to reflect on themselves as carriers of the light, part of the story of the world.
"When all the world's stories are finished, I wonder what will have been your story?" We ended with the short Advent prayer: "May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting."
How well did it work?
This was the first time we had run this kind of event and we had invited two of the classes from school. The first class was due to arrive at 10.00 so we were a bit bemused to hear children's voices outside the door at 9.30. Had we got the time wrong?
However when we opened the door we found it was the local pre-school who had chosen that morning of all mornings to visit the church to accustom the children before their annual nativity!
We were able to take them on a quick tour which they enjoyed so much that their leaders brought them back on the next couple of days for another look round with those who had missed it the first time. By the final day we were sufficiently well organised to give each a foam leaf as a memento of their visit!
The visit of the first class went smoothly. The children were used to Godly Play and reflective storytelling from school and responded well to the different stations and creative response.
However we were somewhat baffled when the second class arrived to see the deputy head miming "phone call" to the chair of governors who was one of the storytellers... It turned out that Ofsted had rung at lunchtime to announce their visit the following day! I expected this to cause a very tense atmosphere but the deputy head commented that it was a very relaxing afternoon and even the chair of governors coped though she was a bit distracted at times...
The after school Footsteps event had been planned as a drop in with refreshments, for people to come along any time during a 2 hour period. We had also planned to leave the displays up for the next couple of days.
I had prepared some boards with a brief outline of the story for each station and I expected that people would come along and wander around the different stations.
However almost all the children arrived together shortly after school finished and I ended up taking them round as a group, telling the stories as we went.
Some of this was a bit ad lib as I hadn't learnt all the stories and the other storytellers were having a much needed break.
We found that when some of the adults from church and a few other children turned up later it didn't work as well without the storytelling aspect and decided that in future we would structure the after school event on the same lines as the school event.
Our church is medieveal and in need of repair; it's very tempting to see it as an encumbrance rather than as an asset. However we felt this event would not have had the same impact in a secular setting.
Currently we know of many events that are held in school or village halls as people are reluctant to go to the church building. This wasn't our experience, although several of the families who came had previously been to our pre-school service and learnt to feel comfortable in church.
Perhaps we need to look for ways to break through this barrier?
Overall the storytellers told their particular story about six times. Each time was slightly different as we adapted as went. We were left wondering how often you need to tell a story before it becomes your own?
Path to the Stable: an alternative version
The original Path to the Stable was an Advent event that was offered to Cambridge primary schools by the Cambridge Church Schools Trust. It took place the week before our own Advent event which meant that we had the benefit of their experience and were also able to use their resources and materials!
The Cambridge church we used is large and spacious with plenty of space for the different stations and activities. Although it was largely rebuilt in the 19th century parts of it date back to 1092, which meant it had many interesting features that the team were able to incorporate in the stations.
Introduction and the Jesse TreeThe children were met in the porch which was decorated for Christmas, complete with cutout Santa.
It was explained to the children that it was too early for Christmas and that this was Advent, a time for getting ready.
A small area hung with puple cloths had been created just inside the entrance to the church for the introduction to Advent.
The Jesse Tree was a complete contrast to ours. It was made of copper rods welded together and stood over 7 feet high. The pictures were gold framed and many of them were smaller versions of the ones used around the prayer station. In the larger area the roots, made of scraps of leather, stretched out effectively in different directions.
Few of the children had actually visited this church before, so the overall effect of the building and the Jesse Tree was a definite "wow!"
Station 2: The prophets
In one corner of the church was a beautiful stone archway with an intricately carved wooden door.
The images were used in telling about the prophets: "Prophets are people who see that things could be different, and that even the smallest seed could grow into the largest fruit..."
The storyteller was also able to incorporate the carving of the pelican (whom legend has it pecked her breast to feed her chicks on her own blood) as a metaphor of Jesus's love for us. The pictures of the prophets (A3 size) were displayed around the area and a candle was lit for each of them.
Station 3: John the Baptist
This station also began at the altar, but a far more ornate altar with panels of golden angels (seen here in the distance on the left).
As the font was set in a larger space it was easier to create a much less cluttered desert using the hessian and the stones.
On the rood screen was the figure of Jesus being crucified: "John pointed to the one who was coming after him."
Station 4: Mary
In the lady chapel was a large picture of the Natvity and below a panel showing Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
The story was told in front of this altar, using the picture of Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden and the picture of the annunciation.
The tree of knowledge was created using a small bush in a pot and artificial red apples.
At the end of the story the group moved out of the lady chapel to its entrance where there was a statue of Madonna and child.
It was here that they were given the opportunity to place their feathers in a bowl at Mary's feet and to choose a feather to take away with them in their Advent bags.
After visiting all the stations the groups came back together for the creative response. Working together in small groups they used the natural and shiny materials to create a response on squares of purple cloth.
The children were also given refreshments before getting ready for the last part of the journey.
The children followed the leader who was carrying a lantern across the road to a tiny church originally built in the 11th century and rebuilt in Georgian times.
The church's beginnings were at the midpoint between Jesus's time and ours - and stone carvings from that time were shown to the children.
Previously,the church had been called the children's church as two ladies ran a children's group there.
At the west end there is a very beautiful window, made up of tiny diamond panes with golden patterns - including plants, crosses and compasses.
It was this window that was used when the children were asked to focus silently on their own story and part in the pattern and where the final prayer was said.
Each class was given a purple candle to take back with them.
(with thanks to Rowena Berridge, Ali Booth, Sheila Bailey and the team and also to Victoria Goodman and the Cambridge Church Schools Trust events team)