We had the pageant rehearsal today. I hope they remember. So went the Tweet from a fellow priest who apparently spent the day not, as much of America did, doing last-minute shopping, but going through the annual ritual of reading the elegant, weighty words of the birth of Jesus according to Luke as interpreted by those under the legal drinking age.
I responded to her Tweet: I suspect God looks as us and says, "Gee, I hope they remember." After all, the majority of the written record of the Bible is repetitive. God tells us God loves us, offers some suggestions about how we might respond to that holy love (loving our neighbors, caring for the poor, worshipping, etc.). We nod and high-five each other in great excitement. Yippee! We are God's beloved, and all these ideas of what that love may motivate us to do - how great.
And then we realize that mercy and love mean we have to grow and change, so we begin giving God less and less, believing in God's love less and less. Some of us get imaginative and create all these other rules so that God will love us, as if our behavior could ever earn God's love. We fiddle and wander in deserts and get testy, even ugly to each other and to God. Life goes on, it crashes and burns, we find ourselves alone and wounded. God finds us, and says (stop me if you've heard this before), "I love you. You are my beloved."
I've never been sure exactly how Christmas Pageants deliver this message, but I know they do. As a priest, I've been involved in Christmas Pageants for a decade. At my first parish, the pageant went from a normal little event on Christmas Eve to quite the production. The Little Bitties, as I call them, the ones who are not quite ready for kindergarten, were birds and fish and flora and fauna. Their job was to wander the stage (or chancel or around the pews - after all stage directions for these things are mere suggestions) while one of the older youth read the Creation Story. After all, the birth of Jesus is intimately related to the birth of all creation, so why ignore that part of the story? A young girl read the part of God. I always think God's voice has been male and old for long enough.
Then the prophets took the stage and told us all what we needed but didn't want to hear from God. Some of the actors were gentle prophets. Isaiah is a mostly kind father-figure. Jeremiah and Baruch are yelling, being the prophets you'd certainly not invite to Christmas dinner. We had the requisite Mary and Gabriel scene where the angle looked more like Elvis in Vegas and Mary shrunk back with her usual meekness, then eventually says, "Sure," to God with all the drama of someone ordering a half latte with skim soy milk and a dusting of cinnamon. Actually, the coffee order has more drama. Maybe I'd be a bit stunned into flat affect if Gabriel had dropped the bomb of Theotokos (God-Bearer) on me, too, so perhaps the young Marys aren't so far off in their dramatic interpretation. We give Matthew his due, showing Joseph's dream. Joseph is a bit more dramatic; Las Vegas Gabriel still appears. Mary and Joseph tour around the church and walk to the stable. Adam played the star, in more ways than one. His cape was a Christmas tree skirt. Daring fashion has always been part of the holy. The Little Bitties dressed in fur and feathers and scales came to the manger, along with the sun, moon, and stars. All of creation was present in that moment. We sang and clapped. And Christ was praised.
Those Little Bitties are teenagers now, going through that not-so-cute stage, but they are still God's beloved. The older youth are in college or part of the world now, working, married, not married, finding out that life is joyful and hard. Some of the men and women who so wonderfully made costumes and made sure pageant participants had food are gone, living on the distant shore of eternal life. I remember the chaos and stress leading up to the pageant, leading up to all the events and liturgies of Christmas Eve. I remember feeling all that stress drop away with the first notes of "O Come All Ye Faithful," and looking over at Albert the rector as we wished each other Merry Christmas before we took the first steps in procession to the Eucharist.
I remember it all.
This year is our first Christmas pageant at St. Michael's in some time. It's got the Laurie flair, which is quite welcome at St. Michael's: The King James Version annotated with a cheeky modern commentary. The costumes are simple. What some parishioners can do with headbands and tinsel is amazing, bordering on miraculous. We had a rehearsal, which was more akin to practing walking down the aisle and coaxing Mary and Joseph to face each other as if they might actually know each other rather than act like strangers in line at Target. The angels will come in yelling. I've always wanted to do that in a pageant. I've never understood how, "Fear not," isn't precipitated by something that scares the bejeezus out of the shepherds. Yelling seems to make the point. I'm expecting the shepherds to show up at the manger before the angels appear instead of stopping at the baptismal font and wait for the angels to appear. There's a real chance the manger may be an empty liquor box draped with burlap. Odds are good that Joseph, in the middle of the pageant, will ask the same theological questions he asks every Sunday during the children's sermon. I didn't manage to get nativity lobsters in the pageant this year, but I've got time (if you haven't seen Love, Actually - go now).
We did practice bowing. Most of them got that part flawlessly. At the rehearsal.
They are the sermon, these children in pageants. Their responses to their roles, with excitement, fear, joy, or nonchalance, mirrors quite well our responses to God. They don't always get everything right; neither do we. Angel wings fall off, the shepherd's bathrobes lose their ties, and the sheep may get in a fight with their sibling sheep (oh yes, that was a fun Christmas Pageant). Creation is not perfect. Never has been. At the end of the story, God doesn't say it is perfect. God, in her voice, simply says it is good.
We forget that God's love for us is good; even, perhaps, that we are good. And on a most holy night, we remember. In the message of the angels, in the gathering of those who weren't powerful or important to the world, in the tiny infant being held against the warm skin of the Mother, God asks us to remember.
In the witness of those who are under the legal drinking age, dressed in tinsel and fuzzy sheep ears and bathrobes and whatever else seemed appropriate (or whatever didn't result in a temper tantrum), the children will ask us to remember. Remember feeling your life, freely. Remember crying when you needed to cry and laughing when you needed to laugh. Remember when make-believe was real. Remember when a snowflake or a crown of tinsel or box of new crayons could make your soul sing. Remember that you are loved, just as you are, no matter if you get the lines right or not. Remember that we are part of a bigger cast, that God isn't really that into solo artists.
After the nativity story is told through their little incarnate selves, they will bow and the congregation will clap. I think applause after the story of God's incarnation is quite appropriate. If it takes children to get us that exuberant about God With Us, so be it. I hope in that moment they know the feeling of God's message of, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
And I hope we will all remember.