I want to like them. I want to like the annual Christmas Pageant. Really, I do. But, every year when this tradition comes along, I can’t help but cringe—at least a little. It’s not that everything goes horribly wrong, like the great Christmas Pageant scene in the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. In my experience, almost everything turns out just about right.
But, still, there’s something about pageants that just doesn’t sit well with me. Some of it certainly has to do with the annual obsession with smooshing together two stories that don’t actually go together very well. The shepherds are in one (Luke) and not the other. The Magi are in the “other” (Matthew), but not in the one with the shepherds. One tells us about the manger (Luke). The other implies a house (Matthew). Only one contains the inn (Luke), and it actually doesn’t even refer to an “innkeeper,” just that “there was no room for them at the inn.” The big villain of the story isn’t even there, really.
Then there’s the whole children piece. Somehow, those of us who go to church on a regular basis, have grown strangely attached to the whole Christmas story played out by small children. Sure, Mary was on the young side (probably around sixteen), but she wasn’t in elementary school. The rest of the characters as well—the Magi and the shepherds, for instance, were not likely to be very young children.
Somehow, though, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the parade of young children in costumes, moving in time with the well-worn story—“In those days . . . . “
Last year, I tried to approach the Christmas Pageant in a different way. I, along with one of my church members, wrote “The One Gospel Christmas Pageant.” The pageant’s main character was a clueless Christmas Pageant director who, short on time, decides to stick with just one story, the Gospel of Matthew. The pageant includes Mary, Joseph, the child, the Magi, and Herod (who has a pageant that includes Herod??). No shepherds, no innkeeper, and just one angel. And, there doesn’t seem to be a manger. The Magi enter “a house” (according to the story in Matthew).
When the pageant appears to be over, a protestor stands and declares that the pageant left out some of the best parts. That’s where we offer a little lesson on the fact that there are two, very distinct, stories—and neither of them is tied to anything with any kind of historical accuracy. We ought to be less focused on how it happened and more on why and what it means to us now. Christmas reminds us—whether we have Wise Men or Shepherds or both—that God comes to us in mysterious ways and sometimes in truly unexpected ways.
Last year, we rehearsed the “One Gospel Christmas Pageant” and we were ready to go. Then, there was an ice storm. Worship was cancelled. And there was no easy way to reschedule.
I assumed that we would try again this year, but as we approached Advent, there was the clear indication of “cold feet.” Didn’t the dialogue seem a little too snarky for church? What was the point, really? Why were we trying to ruin the traditional story, what everyone is used to and expecting? What about the parade of young children?
So “The One Gospel Christmas Pageant” is out. It’s a little late to do a truly traditional pageant, but we will do something that is close. It’s hard not to be disappointed.
I can’t help but be concerned that our more traditional pageant, with its focus on adorable young children, is really a clever way to avoid significant aspects of our faith. We would rather be sentimental, than theological. We would rather gaze adoringly, than engage in deep questions of wonder at the mystery of incarnation. We would rather be in the midst of the familiar, than consider the uncomfortable demands that Jesus makes of us. We would rather stand at a distance, rather than put our own selves in the middle of the story.
But, the story of the birth of Jesus—whether or not it happened anything like what Matthew and Luke have tried to convey—is something that really demands that we pay attention and consider deep and abiding questions of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Certainly, part of the story suggests that the life of the incarnated God depends on human beings, depends on our devotion and care in order to survive and thrive.
These days, for those of us in the old mainline, this is a message that really needs to be front and center, rather than shuffled off and replaced by the true, but tired.