Lessons in the Holiday Season

One of the best literary Christmas pageant scenes is in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. What makes it so great, of course, is that it is so funny. And, what makes it so funny is that everything goes wrong.

The long-time director of the annual Christmas pageant of Christ Church in Gravesend, NH is the wife of the rector and former stewardess, Barb Wiggin. Mrs. Wiggin had a lock-grip on the pageant—from staging, to casting, to costuming and so on. She even had strict demands on the child who would play the baby Jesus, requiring that the infant not even shed a tear.

Every year, the pageant went off without a hitch—until Owen Meany came along. Owen is a diminutive nine-year-old boy with a ruined voice, a little too smart and wise for his years. And, a bit of a control freak himself.

After years of putting up with Mrs. Wiggin and her disciplined and predictable Christmas pageant, Owen decides to undermine her authority and to stage the Christmas pageant how he saw fit—mostly following the “scripture” of “Away in the Manger.” The culmination of all of this is that Owen manipulates his way into the best part in the pageant—the baby Jesus. From his place in the center of the action, Owen then finds a way to direct the whole thing.

On the night of the big production, on Christmas Eve, everything goes wrong. The pageant ends in a shambles.

In the church in which I grew up, the pageant on Christmas Eve was probably the biggest service of the year, the sanctuary packed full of parents, grandparents and other family members of the pageant participants. It, too, was run with tight control and efficiency. It was a well-oiled machine.

When I got a call in December of 1996, asking for my own newborn to play the baby Jesus, I knew just what to expect, even though I no longer attended that church. And, it all went off without a hitch.

The directors of the Christmas Pageant at First Parish Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wakefield, Massachusetts had never met anyone like Owen Meany.
I’ve directed plenty of Christmas pageants myself, although I’ve never stuck to one script year after year. I am certainly relieved when everything falls into place, neatly and on cue, but I must admit that I wonder about the need to keep the story of Christmas so well-ordered.

It seems clear that the story of the very first Christmas was anything but orderly and neat. A last minute trip to an unfamiliar place for a very young, and very pregnant, woman. A man who may have thought about quietly leaving the young woman, when he found out that she was pregnant and they were not yet married. No room at the inn. A stable probably full of smelly animals. And, then that crowd—shepherds from the fields and strange men from far away bearing gifts that were anything but practical. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What about diapers, a rattle, a pacifier, some infant clothing?

The story of the first Christmas, and the season of Advent that precedes it, reminds us that God rarely works with the same efficiency and predictability of someone like Barb Wiggin. And, that is a wondrous thing.

So, when you are finding this holiday season a little (or a lot) hectic, your mind scattered, things getting a little out of control—take heart! It may be the perfect time to be present in the moment—God may just be bursting into your life in a whole new way. God may be seeking to be born in your heart as never before.

God doesn’t usually come to us in predictable, contained moments. God doesn’t come to us in those efficient, “well-oiled” routines of the season. God comes to us in surprising and amazing ways, in the unexpected. So this Christmas season, prepare your heart, and your head, for the new ways that God is seeking to be born in your life.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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