Every year about this time, I start to ponder the wonder of the Christmas story anew -- and through the lens of our church pageant.
This year we're fully in charge of the pageant, and so spent our Sunday School time yesterday getting the kids into their costumes, setting up the scenes they'll be acting out while I and two of our teenage assistants narrate the story. My husband (good director that he is) helped the kids work out simple blocking, and he and I both tried to help the kids think through some of their responses ("When the angel appears, try to look really scared! Terrific! Great! Oh, you look really scared! Then when you hear the words 'great joy' start looking happy! Remember, this is GOOD NEWS!").
It occurred to me yesterday that people not familiar with the tradition of Christmas pageants could have some perplexed reactions if they stumbled upon our little troupe of robed elementary and preschool actors giggling through their roles. One response might be surprise that such young children are acting out a story with such serious (and in many ways adult) elements.
After all, this is a story about an unwed pregnant teenager mother traveling wearily, along with her fiancee, to a town where they're going to be counted so they can be taxed by an oppressive government. And they can't find a place to sleep, so they have to go -- "to a barn!" as one of the kids kept saying. And it's there that the young woman gives birth to her baby. Then a bunch of crazy, scraggly shepherds show up, hopeful and amazed, because they've seen a sky full of angels announcing that this poor baby wrapped up in rags is actually the Savior of the world.
I could see how some people might say the story is too grown-up for children. Or perhaps (in another similar reaction) too serious to be play-acted. I could see how people not familiar with the heart of the story (or the heart of the author of the story) might wonder if we were not taking it seriously enough, or think we were attempting to tame its wildness and wonder. They might look a little askance at four and five year old shepherds quaking in fear as my gangly nine year old, dressed in white (with a sparkly sash) waves her arms and beams, towering over them, or at the little eight year old girl dressed in blue, pretending to wash dishes and dropping one in surprise when the angel shows up to tell her she's conceived a baby. (Does it help to remember that Mary was probably only a few years older than this?) They might wonder what we're doing, asking children to enter into this very holy story about very real and sometimes gritty things.
But that is the wildness and wonder of the whole thing -- that we're all asked to enter into it, and that we're all children in the face of this incredible reality, this amazing love, this tremendous story. None of our celebrations, none of our actings out of the story, will ever come close to capturing its wonder and essence -- but we still enter it, year after year, doing our fumbling best. Because we need to and long to. Because we want to find our place in it and learn to live the story out. Because it is at the fountain of this story that we drink life.
And I sometimes think it is the simplest, youngest, most innocent, homemade renditions of that story that come closest to the edges of the real event -- earthy and poor and homemade as it was. This is, after all, the story of the birth of a baby, a tiny precious baby. That the baby is God wrapped in rags and cradled by a young, tired mother in a barn is so gloriously preposterous that it needs the wholehearted trusting faith of a child to even be approached. Christmas pageants give us this opportunity -- to enter in as children, to enter in with children, to enter in before the Child himself. We know the Child grows up; we know the holy life he will live and the pain he will endure on our behalf and the death he will die for us. But we cannot get to that part of the story without this part, this plain and simple earthly beginning embroidered around all its rough-hewn edges with angel song. We need to hear it, again and again, and walk into it over and over.
Gregory the Great was right. The Gospel is shallow enough for a lamb to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim. So I'm thankful for the Christmas pageant every year. Every year it's a new chance to usher children into the story, to walk with them as they leave the shore and head into the wild waters of the gospel, to give them waterwings and hold their hands as they learn to float, to teach them how to wade. And every year it's a chance for me to sink deeper, to swim farther, to stay longer in and farther out, knowing I will never ever exhaust the depth of this story no matter how long I live or how many times I move into its beautiful, rushing, life-giving current.