A long time ago, and a long way away, when iMInister was YoungMinister, she learned a lesson at Christmas which she never forgot.
She turned that year's Christmas pageant over to an energetic member experienced in improvisational theater. She gave her some old scripts, the box of costumes, told her about the Haunting House animals which must be included with their pre-school creators, recruited someone to play "The Friendly Beasts", and left the rest to her.
The director recruited YoungMinister’s husband, who came home with ominous news. "Wise Guys," he reported, "midwives, and every kid in the Sunday School can wear a costume and bring an appropriate gift."
"Wise Guys?" she asked, skeptically.
"With the gift of humor."
"You don't think Joseph delivered that baby by himself, do you?" he quoted.
YoungMInister thought seriously about taking a long winter’s nap and waking up at about 2PM on the Sunday afternoon after the Pageant.
The Saturday before the service, she wandered through the rehearsal hall periodically, trying to keep my anxieties to herself. All was Chaos. There were an astounding number of people around. Mostly parents and their (in her opinion, too young) children, but several, her my husband, page to the Wise Women (Wise Women? Hey, man, this is 1986!), who did not even have children and, undoubtedly, had better things to do on the Saturday before Christmas. There were four figures on the stage; Mary holding a wrapped doll, Joseph, and a toddler. "Lucy won't leave her mother," the director explained to me, "so I just let her stay there. Maybe by tomorrow, she will want to be a rabbit." She retired to my study, astounded.
Her husband came home, swearing he'd never be involved in such foolishness again and reported the “gift” of the head wise guy. "You need a sense of humor, little buddy; if you don't have that, when you start doing miracles, you'll get nailed." That night, she dreamed of chaos, poor taste, and the church overrun by Rabbits and Darth Vaders.
The first children to arrive Sunday morning were dressed as a football player and a rat. "What are you going to give the baby?" She asked, trying to keep her tone light. "Speed and Courage." said the child solemnly. "He'll need them." The young rat simply brandished an enormous yellow sponge, which, he said, was cheese.
She spoke to the first two wise guys she saw, who concurred that the Methodist Grandmothers in the congregation might not appreciate the reference to nails, and they agreed to discuss the matter with the third of the trio when he arrived. A three year old rabbit with a be-ribboned carrot, an extraordinary, two-boy camel (one head for each hump), two little girls wrapped in sheep skin automobile seat covers arrived in quick succession, and that nap was looking really good.
The theological student who had landed the major speaking role came to her with his concern. "Have you heard about the line about being nailed?" he asked anxiously, "I think some people might be offended by that." "I think they will change it." she said, wishing he had voiced his concern to the parties involved. "You should forbid it!" "Humm" she said. Six years ago, she probably would have. But she was still paying for some of the things she did six years ago. He'll see.
The rat wanted to light the flaming chalice, but agreed that someone who would not be in the pageant should have an opportunity. Two tiny children were crying over their Haunting House animals. Some young pyromaniac had (again) made off with the matches. It was time to begin the worship service.
The first part of the service went amazingly well, all things considered. There was even a moment of real silence at the time of the meditation, and one child caught on to the point of the sharing candles fast enough to light one for his father, "who usually doesn't come to church, but came to see me in the play." Mercifully, no one laughed.
The pageant concerned a statue of St. Francis (the theological student) which comes to life and creates a living crèche, just the real Francis did in Assisi. In the middle of his plea to the congregation for cooperation, the treasurer, who was not at the rehearsal, jumped up and yelled, "It sound like this is going to cost money!" That brought down the house, as they say in the theater business, which this is not.
"We need some shepherds, some angels, some wise men..." continued Francis, and he was interrupted again. "And Wise WOMEN!" yelled an adolescent feminist dressed in blue jeans and an army jacket. She loped down the aisle to give the baby her jam box and her best advice. "Just, be yourself, you know," she said, and somehow, it was touching. The wise guys lurched down the aisle with their blind camel, and delivered their lines, uncut but sufficiently muffled that only the initiated understood them. The midwife arrived with her own children ("no baby-sitters in those days"), and a zoo full of animals proceeded to give their gifts, one by one, to Mary, the baby, and the unexplained toddler, who did not want to be a rabbit. The gifts ranged from the sublime (“a reading book, because you have to be able to read to be wise”) to the ridiculous (“a carrot to eat, when you are older”), but they are clearly given from the heart. The adults stopped laughing and leaned in to hear their children’s wisdom and generosity.
The preschoolers with their Haunting House animals were shepherded in by their teachers. We all sang, "The Friendly Beasts." Francis read the old story from the book of Luke. It was like magic. Even the rat seemed enthralled. Mary put down the doll and took her own child into her lap. St. Francis complained of stiffness and was helped by the narrator (a teenager who didn't know he could act) back to his pedestal. We sang Silent Night. YoungMinister has goosebumps and the tickle of a tear in the back of her nose. It had been as they say, the Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Oh she of little faith...
It happens every year like this, and it occurred to YoungMInister that if she understood the magic of the Christmas pageant, she would have the keys to the kingdom, or at least, to the church. Whatever it is that brings a small mob of adults and children to a long and boring rehearsal on the busiest day of the year, that allows self-conscious adolescents to offer their best to the congregation, that permits adults to play dress ups in sheets and bathrobes in front of other adults, children to shine, and all to experience the goose bumped magic of old and wonder-filled stories is too big to be magic; it must be the holy spirit.