I always love the annual Christmas pageant. They are just so adorable. I remember being in them when I was a kid and it gave me such joy to see my grandson up there. We pass on the tradition, the story. Every year before Christmas, I play this little game where I consider all the characters in the nativity and think about my own life. What’s going on around me and in me? I discern which character I most identify with that year. The fun thing is that it changes from year to year and makes Christmas more personal rather than just going on autopilot thinking I know all about the story. This has a way of making Christmas real for me in the here and now.
So, what part would you play? Which character do you most resonate with this year? Maybe you’re Joseph–he had plans that never worked out the way he envisioned. He had his life planned out. Have the wedding with Mary, kids soon thereafter if they are able to conceive. Then Mary winds up pregnant and you decide on plan A. You will dismiss her quietly. A dream angel says, “Don’t do that.” Okay. Plan B. We make due and have our child here in Nazareth. O, a census. Plan C. We’ll get there and stay at the Inn. Plan D. After the census we’ll go back home. Herod put a hit out on my kid. We’re moving to Egypt. Plan E. At least. Maybe that is where you find yourself, things haven’t worked out the way you planned and you have to find a way to not let your disappointment get the better of you. When you are a Joseph the key is to remember not to get down. Joesph’s plans didn’t all work out. So what. That’s life. It’s got its frustrations but God is not through with you and is constantly working in your life to do something amazing.
Maybe you can identify with Joseph because he was called upon to let go of his hurts, his bitterness, the negative thoughts when Mary turned up pregnant. He didn’t react with negativity but with grace. Is that where you are–called to let go of bitterness, betrayal and to respond with mercy instead?
Mary. To be an unwed, pregnant, peasant girl meant that people would have looked down their noses at her–made assumptions about her without knowing the real story. Maybe you are someone that people judge, they are too small minded to see that God wants to do something wonderful in your life and they don’t get it, they won’t get it. But you do. You are not too young or old, or too uninformed about the Bible or too sinful for God’s purposes. The only thing that is needed is for you to say, “yes” to God as Mary did.
When pregnant Mary meets Elizabeth she bursts into the Magnificat, singing about God’s great reversal of the order of this world where the poor have daily bread, the powerless are lifted up, and the haughty brought low. When Jesus started preaching, this is the stuff he talked about. I’m sure people who knew looked at each other and said, “He gets it from his mother.” Maybe you, like Mary see your life as being involved in God’s agenda for social justice, that you sense that your narrative is more than just living for the pleasures of this life, but that you have a role to play in advocating for justice, peace, a voice at the table for all God’s children.
How about the innkeeper? No one ever auditions for the innkeeper role, it just sort of happens. There is a knock on your door, a telephone call, a letter asking for your service to some worthy cause. O, well no, I’m too busy, I don’t have time. No one sets out to be the innkeeper, it’s the kind of thing that happens when you fill your life with hyper busy-ness and activity. It’s the kind of thing that happens when spirituality isn’t a top priority, but something you do with your leftover energy. It’s sort of like eating leftovers for dinner–we all do it, but if all you ever have is leftovers, you develop an uninteresting, boring diet and you understand that you are what you eat. Don’t become boring, or worse, spiritually malnourished. Making a priority for worship, learning, fellowship, service and generosity aren’t supposed to be the things you do after you do everything else; make them a priority in your life for so that everything else can be well nourished. Think of the things of faith more like an energy source that fuels everything else you do rather than the things you do if you have enough leftover time and energy. If you don’t make it a priority suddenly, you’ll realize that you are the innkeeper.
Maybe you are best suited for the Shepherd role. Shepherds were outsiders, literally and metaphorically. They were prejudged, thought to be lowlife, scumbags and many of them were. Have you ever known someone that succeeded in living down to expectations? Someone told them they were no good, so they said, “Fine, I’ll be no good! If that is the way I’m going to be treated, I might as well act the part.”
You’d never go to a party and hear the host say, “Let me introduce my friend, Shane the Shepherd.” Yes, I thought I smelled something horrible. Maybe that’s you, not smelly, but an outsider, someone who has been judged; maybe you have lived down to expectations or have just messed things up. I have good news of great joy for you because it’s the shepherds that God invited to the big Christmas party. God didn’t invite the clergy or the perfect people who had their acts together, no God invited shepherds! When those angels invited the shepherds to go to Bethlehem, it was God’s grand “in your face” movement against all forms of social or religious snobbery and judgmentalism. Whichever part you try out for in this year’s pageant, don’t try out for the off-camera judgmental jerks who don’t get invited. The invited are those who acknowledge their own shortcomings and grateful just to be with the one called Emmanuel, God with us.
Maybe you’ve felt on the outside of faith or a church because of who you are or what you believe or what you’ve done. We start every service with the words, Whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here. We welcome people who are not fully welcome at other places. We see in the Christmas story this great coming together of the wealthy magi and the lowly shepherds, the religious insiders, and the outsiders. A breakdown of all the old artificial barriers that divide people and lead them to turn on each other.
Maybe you are one of the angels. It was fun to see Berkley Dixon, one of our little angels in the play when she figured out how to make her wings move. I heard someone say that maybe angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. If you want to be an angel, you might have to loosen up a little, give yourself some grace, or at least accept the grace that God wants to give to you. The word angel literally means, “Messenger.” Maybe that is you this year? Is there someone that you know who is in need of tidings of comfort and joy? I like that the story says that the heavenly host appeared. How many is in a host? I don’t know, I’m guessing a lot and they have room for you, it you’d just make a special effort this year to reach out to someone in need of a form of comfort or joy that you can provide–even if it’s just to tell them that they don’t have to go it alone.
Magi is always a popular role–especially the one who carries the gold. I love the look on kid’s faces when they learn that the whole point of carrying the gold is not to keep the gold, but to give it away. But I’ve got more back in magi land, right? The point is to give away, to be generous. Maybe your gift is the sweet fragrance of frankincense; you have something to give to someone else that can make his or her life a bit sweeter, nicer. In last place on the magi, popularity scale is the myrrh man. Myrrh was a burial spice. But maybe that is what you are doing this year–carrying a sense of grief or loss; maybe the loss of another person, or a dream, or a relationship and you are looking to lay it at the foot of the Christ child who reminds you that God is with you even in the valley of the shadow of death and that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Maybe one of the animals. There isn’t any mention of animals in the biblical story but nativity scenes and Christmas pageants have them. They remind us of God’s care over all creation. All vulnerable things. The first nativity scenes were attributed to St. Francis who loved animals. An 8th-century monk imagined the words of the prophets coming true at Christmas and imagined an ox and ass at the nativity. A beast of burden. Someone just plows ahead and works. Gets invited. Also the stubborn donkey. You’ve got your mind made up about God or about someone else. You’re reading into their every action the very worst motivation. Maybe you can come to the manger and soften your heart.
Because my grandson, Parker, was a cow in this year’s play, I’ve been thinking of that role. That’s a little more challenging to imagine. The question is how to relate. Maybe: I’m going to eat so much this Christmas, I need 4 stomachs. Or somebody has been emotionally or financially milking me for all I’m worth, taking advantage. Or maybe you are just quietly taking in this story, giving it a chance, chewing on it, reflecting.
Have you found your role yet? There is always King Herod. Okay, I feel you saying, “Not me; I’d never do that.” Okay, but you might have the same issue that Herod had–he wanted to be king and didn’t want to take orders from Jesus. I’m often Herod. I want to be Lord of my life and seek roads that bypass those commands of Jesus: do unto others, turn the other cheek, do good to those who wrong you, don’t worry, pick up your cross. Who among us isn’t guilty of being Herod, where we refuse to submit to Jesus’ teachings and place our own comforts and conveniences above his commands? We slaughter the innocence within our hearts whenever we act as if we are at the center of the universe and try to keep away anything that threatens our rule.
Maybe you are playing the role of Herod’s soldiers. You are just following the will of the empire no matter who it hurts. You don’t ask questions about the morality of your behavior, you just do what is asked of you. And what is asked of you in today’s empire? That you just buy, buy, buy and don’t ask too many questions about who we are killing; make your life about being a cog in an economic engine. Don’t think about who is getting ground down by evil, injustice, and oppression. Just keep on consuming. Don’t worry about where your chocolate comes from, the mistreatment of the tomato pickers, the human trafficking that is going on at the massage parlors and strip clubs down the street, just keep going without ever asking the hard questions of, “Is this right? Should I care? What can I do?” Don’t ever reflect on how the empire uses violence to impose its will on others, just keep your head down and do your job. That’s how you become one of Herod’s soldiers. And if anyone ever calls you to accountability, you just say it was all out of your hands. I’ve been playing that role ever since I was born. And I’m sick of it. There has got to be a better answer. Come to the manger all who yearn for a better way. Come to me all you are weary and heavy laden, he said.
What do we find when we come to the stable? The last part. Yeah, maybe this year you can be the baby. Maybe this is the time to stop acting as if the world is going to fall apart without your over hyperactivity and just be. Maybe it’s a season in your life where you need to be held, taken care of, nurtured. Maybe you need to receive instead of give.
Okay, that’s all the parts I can think of. The pageant is happening again, right now. Maybe by visualizing your role, you can decide how you are going to play it. All actors put something from their innermost being into their roles. Which costume will you put on and how will you play it?