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Mayhem and the manger

Why didn't you warn me about Christmas pageants?
By Carl Scovel

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Christmas pageant

(Christopher L. Walton)

Her Christmas card came late one year, but I wasn’t surprised. I knew that her first year as a parish minister had kept her busy. I enjoyed the P.S.: “Why didn’t you warn me about Christmas pageants?”

Why indeed? What can you say about these pageants? What should you say? Is it fair to warn a fledgling minister? They’re like war, childbirth, and one microsecond of a holy visitation.

Planning a pageant is pleasant enough. You sit at your desk and write a script. You block out the action. You sketch costumes. You select players, choose the music, and imagine a scene of calm and peace, moving in time and synchronicity like a flowing river.

Then comes the first rehearsal. The river is suddenly a raging torrent. Chaos. Confusion. Misery. The children arrive late, hungry, tired, and distracted. The parents are cross, the choir director exasperated, the janitor furious. The wise men get into a fight with the shepherds—cardboard boxes of “myrrh” clashing with foil-wrapped staffs. Mary slips on the chancel steps and hurts her ankle. Joseph forgets to turn on the tape recorder in the cradle. And may God help you if in a fit of sentimentality you chose live animals to be at the crèche.

If the first rehearsal was chaos, the second is mayhem—Mary on crutches, the shepherds on the wise men, the choir director on hold, and the janitor on something stronger than herb tea. You survive but realize that what you’ve been through is closer to the Battle of Borodino than the mythical calm at the manger. Or is that right? Perhaps the stable was bedlam. (Bedlam is the Cockney nickname for a mental hospital in London whose official name was Bethlehem.) In the days of Caesar Augustus there was chaos in Israel: a new census, people on the move, the inns full, townsfolk tense, an occupation army in the streets, and guerrillas in the hills. Rehearsals remind us of reality, remind us that God comes not on a Technicolor screen but in the midst of madness.

It’s amazing how well the pageant went on Christmas Eve. True, the shepherds were ogling their friends in the front pews, and Mary looked more pained than peaceful. The junior choir blew the third verse of “O come, little children.” An usher dropped a collection plate filled with change. But there was a moment when the lights were turned down and the cast was still and the congregation sang “Silent Night.” And for a moment the people felt the peace that God may intend for us.

Strange how this works each year. We look at the kids in the chancel, and we do not see the boy next door dressed in an ill-fitting bathrobe nor our niece wriggling nervously in gilded cardboard wings, but we see these children and ourselves transformed for a moment by the story.

We are the Holy Family—our offspring, our neighbors, our fellow townsfolk. We are the story, and for a moment we know more and better of ourselves than we may in the rest of the year.

Not bad.

Excerpted with permission from Never Far from Home: Stories from the Radio Pulpit by Carl Scovel (Skinner House Books, 2004). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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