Christmas 1 John Christmas Pageants, December 30, 2018
John 1: 1-18 St. Mark’s
One of my favorite parts of Christmas are the pageants. On Christmas Eve night at five o’clock every child at St. Mark’s has the opportunity to be a part of a Christmas pageant where the nativity story from Luke is portrayed. Next Sunday on Epiphany we were reenact the nativity story from Matthew.
But today we are reading the Christmas story according to the gospel of John. A Christmas pageant based on this fourth gospel would be dramatically different. The birth story would feature one child,/ speaking one line/ in front of a black velvet curtain: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”/ While this certainly would be a great savings in costumes and props and relieve anxious parents and teachers about each child’s part, but we,/ and especially the children,/ would feel seasonally shortchanged./
However, I do know about several Christmas pageants where one child unknowingly does attempt to perform a John Christmas pageant.
I begin by sharing another clergy person’s first experiences with a children’s Christmas pageant.1 At her church, baby Jesus traditionally is a bright plastic baby swaddled in a blue and white blanket in the hay-filled manger. On her first year as the new rector she has the brilliant idea to have a real live baby Jesus when she discoveres that this year’s Mary has a brand new three-month-old baby brother, Jimmy. All goes well on Christmas Eve until, on cue, the choir sings “No crying he makes.”2 With the sharp hay stabbing holes in his backside, just at that moment, baby Jesus lets out a bloodcurdling scream./ Mary, in desperation, who has heard Jimmy’s wailing at home too many times, wheels around when to no avail, she cannot comfort the infant and looks straight at her baby brother and shouts, “ shut up, Jesus!”/Of course, this does not stop the infant playing Jesus from crying out,/ and neither will the hound of heaven ever stop trying to reach out to us, even when we do not want to hear what he is saying./ “And the word became flesh and” continually cries out to us, sometimes in a cooing whisper,/ sometimes in a bloodcurdling scream./
Frederick Buechner tells us about the second pageant which takes place at another unnamed Episcopal church.3 The manger is down in front at the chancel steps as always. Mary is there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men are there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them the Christ child lies in the straw. The nativity story is read aloud by the rector as carols are sung at the appropriate places, and all goes like clockwork until it is time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation who are robed in white/ and scattered throughout the pews sitting with their parents.
At the right moment they are all supposed to come forward and gather around the manger and say “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men,” and that is just what they do except there are so many of them that there is a great deal of crowding and jockeying for position with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who is smaller than most of them ends up so far out on the fringes of things that/ not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe can she see what is going on. “Glory to God in the highest,” they all sing on cue, and then/ in the momentary pause that follows,/ the small girl electrifies the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Show me Jesus! Where is Jesus! I can’t see Jesus, show him to me!”
There is a lot of pageant still to come, but Buechner’s friend says that one of the best things she ever did in her life was to end everything precisely there. “Show me Jesus!” the child cries out again, and while the congregation is still sitting in stunned silence, the rector pronounces the benediction, and everybody files out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears. “Show me Jesus!” “And the word became flesh and lives among us.”/
“In the fullness of time, the Christmas story says, a girl gave birth ringed by animals. She lay the baby in one of their feeding troughs, where animal bodies would warm the air around his fresh-born human body. Mother and child fell asleep and woke to their chuffs and shuffling hooves, their calls and the shuddering of their hides… To recognize him they should look for a child at home among animals.”4
Not too far away in another church a third pageant begins to start.5 The second and third graders are the animals and are making their most realistic animal sounds. The new pageant director does not realize how long it takes to dress/ and move/ and fix the hair/ of the heavenly host, especially when they are thirty-two angels all between two and four years old. It is looking like a rough night in Bethlehem. Mary has been sick all morning and the bucket next to the manger is for her. Joseph may have been a “righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace,” but he is also thirteen years old and decides about ten days ago that he is not going to enjoy this pageant at all. When the mooing and barking and meowing and baaing animals arrive behind the shepherds, any hope of heavenly peace vanishes. They take over the whole chancel and elevate “lowing”2 to a new cacophonous hip-hop rap-sounding art form. And the angels—well, the moms and dads working with the little angels backstage completely miss their cue, so the host arrive long after the wise men, even after the congregation has sung “Angels We Have Heard on High,”/ even after the teenaged narrator has said four times, “and suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host.” /But when the angels finally do arrive, they look good: their halos are perfect and their hair is just right./
But right near the end, right before everyone is to sing “Joy to the world!,” the narrator fights his way to center stage for his last line. He steps on and over an abundance of sheep and cows, even some dogs and cats and one child who came as a mouse. The angels’ parents in the congregation are paying no attention to the narrator, making up for lost picture-taking time and completely ignoring the request about no flash photography.
Mary is reaching for the bucket, and Joseph has rolled his eyes so many times that they just about fall out of his head. So our star narrator has to shout over the barnyard noise,/ and he never gets the parents’ attention. /He throws his folder down, stretches out his arms and with no small amount of exasperation yells, “Christ was born for this??”6 And the exhausted pageant director cries out, “It is an exclamation point, not a question mark!”/ //
BUT, INDEED, IN ALL OUR MESS… “The word did become flesh, and lives among us.”/
Some days the birth of Christ does feel like a question mark. Underneath the surface of our lives that look so good on the outside are hidden, secret hemorrhaging and fractured relationships. In our darkness we long to see Jesus’ love and peace and light. That scared inner child in each of us cries out,/ “Show me Jesus!”.//////
The child holding a single candle in John’s Christmas pageant says, “Here is the light we have been waiting for,/ the very presence of God among us, with us, beside us, at the table, and in us.” That light of Christ miraculously enters our wounds and daily will heal us most often through neighbors,/ friends/ and especially through this community gathered today/ if only we open our eyes and our hearts to see this light already in each other and ourselves, and at this table.
This light is a gift,/ but John tells us it is also an assignment. We are not called to “keep Christmas” in our hearts. We are called to give it away, to tell what has happened, to share our story,/ to share OUR OWN CHRISTMAS PAGEANT,/ about when that light of Christ came into our life,/ often when we least expected it./
In our rich pageant of life, we are called to be that child holding a candle and telling John’s Christmas story. Sometimes we will have to cry and shout over the world’s noise. But we are called to proclaim, not with a question mark, but with an exclamation point, “The word became flesh” and dwells among us.… “Christ was born for this!”
1Daniel Harrell, “Living the Word,” Christian Century, December 11, 2013.
2 “Away in a Manger,” The Hymnal 1982, 101.
3 Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark A Life in Sermons, p. 268. Harper Sanfrancisco 2006.
4 Gayle Boss,“Jesus, the Christ,” All Creation Waits.
5David Davis, A Kingdom we can Taste, Sermons for the Church Year. pp. 25-30.
6 “Good Christian Friends,” The Hymnal 1982. 107.