Thirty years ago I was given Barbara Robinson’s tale of the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Her story takes place in what could be any church, in any town across America in which the Christmas story is told through the innocence of Children. Just like our pageant which took place last week, this pageant was shrouded with tradition and expectation. Everyone knew who would direct it, for the same woman had directed the pageant for the last thirty years. Every child knew who would play the leads long before auditions. And, like every other church pageant across America, this pageant was expected to run like clock work with no surprises.
That was until the director fell and broke her leg and the Herdman children showed up the week auditions were announced and for some odd reason decided they wanted to be in the play.
Now there was nothing wrong with the Herdman children, just that there were a lot of them and they were not exactly the children one would expect to be in the Christmas pageant. They were dirty and disheveled, not exactly well behaved and basically tough as nails. Every child in town was afraid of the Herdmans. So when the Herdman children decided they wanted to be part of the pageant, and to be the leads no less, none of the other children put up a fight. So the eldest sister played the Angel Gabriel, the brothers played the three wisemen and the youngest and toughest of them all, Gladys, played the Virgin Mary.
On the night of the pageant, the Herdman children independently decided to add their own twist to the Christmas story. Instead of the Angel Gabriel greeting the shepherds with “do not be afraid” they were greeted with Hey You!, Instead of the wisemen bringing the baby Jesus Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, They brought Jesus what they felt were more fitting gifts of toys and the family’s Christmas Ham. And Mary, well, instead of looking all clean,innocent and pure, She was dirty and disheveled with her veil all askew. When the shepherds arrived she held tightly to her new born child protecting him from anyone who would dare take him from her.
As Barbara Robinson tells it, there was no doubt among the children and most of the congregation, the Herdmans had ruined the Christmas pageant, that was until the narrator finds Gladys in a corner looking intently at a picture of the Virgin Mary, with tears streaming down her cheeks as she declares, “this is what she should look like.” No, the narrator observes, not like the picture, but more like Gladys for that is where God chose to enter the world.
So often when we choose to enter into the darkness of christmas eve to journey to church, or even Sunday mornings, we come full of expectation, hoping to somehow separate ourselves from the chaos of the world we live in. To find ourselves, for a few moments at least, able to escape the grief that may be so deeply part of our lives. or to find a moment to stop and catch our breath in the midst of our frenetic pace life requires of us. Often we come believing if we can put our lives on hold we may experience a glimpse of the Almighty. On Christmas eve we try to enter into an ideal world where a mother kneels peacefully next to her sleeping newborn as we pray that our lives could be just that serene and peaceful. Only to realize our lives or even life itself will never be that peaceful or serene.
In the midst of our own disappointment, what we eventually realize is both inside and outside of the church is what Barbara Robinson alludes to at the end of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, that God is not looking to be found in the midst of perfection, but in the midst of the messiness of our lives. As I read Luke’s account of the Nativity, I have to divorce myself from the images of countless nativity scenes, hallmark cards, and stained glass windows. Images which conjure up carols such as Silent Night and Away in the Manger, and actually picture the scene as described in my mind’s eye. I have to imagine the Holy Family traveling by donkey the seventy or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed. I have to allow myself to smell the earthiness that permeated the stable where Mary gave birth. And I have to imagine how crowded the sleepy town of Bethlehem was as so many converged on this little town to be registered and taxed.
When I allow myself to imagine the Nativity as it most likely was, it is then that I come to accept that God did not choose to enter the perfection of our lives but into our imperfect reality instead. Why else would God choose to be born in a stable and not in the removed opulence of a noble palace? Why else would God have chosen a lowly young woman to bear God’s son and not a noble princess living far above the common person?
It is into the darkest, the messiest, the smelliest and perhaps the most imperfect part of creation that God chose to enter and to reside among us. Not necessarily to remove the darkness from our lives but, instead ,to somehow, mysteriously and miraculously redeem it. . .to somehow allow us to discover the perfect in the midst of the imperfect and to let us know that God is present, even in the places where we would least expect or perhaps find God to be in our lives..
“Do not be afraid,” the angel says to Mary just before he tells her that the course of her life is about be radically changed for ever, that she is about to bear the most holy of children. For God he tells her, is with her.
“Do not be afraid” the angel tells the shepherds as they keep watch over their flock at night, as they guard their livestock and themselves from the predators of the night, as they receive tidings of great joy, as they choose to travel further into the darkness of the night in order to find the light of the world. This is the completion of tonight’s story. It is the part of the story which tells us we do not need to fear walking into our own darkness for in the midst of it, eventually, we will find the Light of God within it. Mary entered the darkness and the uncertainty of Motherhood, and bore the incarnation, the Emmanuel, the God who is with us. The Shepherds travel through the darkness of the night and confirm what the Angels told them, that the Light of the world is again amongst us. We have been called to into the darkness of this night assured we will find the Light of hope residing among us.
In the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel, St. John writes, the Light has entered the darkness and the darkness has not over come it. What this night and this gathering tells us is that the Light still shines despite the messiness of our lives, that the light still shines despite the sorrows, the grief, the uncertainty and the fear which seems to enshroud the world today. That despite it all the light still shines, not because we are in the midst of obtaining perfection, but because we still gather in the midst of our imperfection to seek and to find the Light among us. And more importantly, because we choose not to turn away from from the light, but to bear witness to that Light even though our lives and this world are still imperfect, despite the hardships and the sorrows we may endure. No matter what, as long as we continue to seek the light in the darkness, to journey with the shepherds in search of a child laying in a manger, there is hope, for this is where we will find God, because this is where God has chosen to live among us.