Back when our children were young, Lisa and I were strong believers in the value of reading aloud; and so, from the time they were babies, “time for a story” was an important part of our life together as a family. Consequently, over the years we read a whole lot of books, and many of them were read a whole lot of times; that’s why even now, if pressed, I could still probably recite at least parts of “The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree,” and why the mere mention of “Green Eggs and Ham” spurs forth memories of intense, method acting performances best left forgotten!
Thinking back on it, however, our children’s favorite stories were always the ones we made up; tales created at the spur of the moment in the midst of a long car ride or in a bid to get a little one to calm down before bedtime. These stories always seemed to be about them, out on some adventure or another: a treasure hunt with their cousins; a search for a tiger that inevitably turned out to be our cat Beazlie; a journey to a toy store where the toys mysteriously came to life after dark. Those stories got told what seemed like a hundred times or more, and we had to tell them a certain way (more than once, as I recall, I’d start to “tell the tale,” only to be corrected at every turn because it wasn’t the way Mum tells it!). But no matter how many times the story got retold, or even long after we’d assumed they’d forgotten about them altogether, sooner or later one of them would come and ask us again: “Tell me the story… tell me the story about me.”
That memory came to mind the other morning as we gathered our church’s children to rehearse this year’s Christmas pageant, a lovely (and wonderfully multi-generational!) tradition in this and many other congregations about now. It occurred to me that more than simply dressing up our kids in bathrobes, tinsel and tinfoil wings so they can look cute and sing some Christmas songs, what we’re doing in the midst of barely controlled chaos (!) is to “tell the story;” and not just any story, but the story of the birth of Jesus, our Savior, which as believers is our story: the very reason we call ourselves Christian and why share the name of Christ. It’s more than a twice-told tale of something that happened in some backwoods village in the Middle East two thousand years ago; it’s a story about us, about you and me in this time and place, and who we are.
In and through the familiar tableau of manger, angel and star hangs this wondrous tale of our need for life and truth, and of the ways of divine love. It’s the story of how our God brought light and life to a world mired in darkness; it’s about the gift of a Savior unto a people seemingly condemned to everlasting hurt and despair, a gift that brought “joy to the world” with redemption and true salvation, a gift that continues to be ours to this day. Indeed, this is no less than the story of our own sure and certain hope, a hope personified in a tiny, helpless baby born amongst farm animals by the light of a shining star.
Granted, given that the depth of the storytelling pretty much depends on the whims of your average group of already overly excited pre-schoolers, the whole choreography of such an important production is to say the very least, daunting; and it’s tempting in this post-modern, high-tech era to wonder if, in fact, “there’s an app for that” or at least a video to show that might serve the same purpose. In the end, however, we know better, and gladly we go back to our yearly parade of shepherds, kings and baby angels, knowing that in doing so we are not only passing this beautiful story of the nativity and the true meaning of Christmas on to the next generation of believers, we’re also reminding ourselves of who we are and whose we’ve always been.
All I know is that on more occasions than I could possible share with you here, I’ve spoken with adults who, upon returning to church after many years’ absence, will speak very warmly about those years long ago that they spent carrying a shepherd’s crook or managing a long, flowing angel robe. These were the memories of a story that they themselves got to tell so many years before; a story that always stayed in their hearts and which inevitably, if slowly, sparked a great need to somehow reconnect to the divine promise of love that was found in an indescribable mixture of timeless words and familiar music; that which inspired them to bring their own children so perhaps they might get to hear, and tell, the story for themselves.
This year, a mid-December snowstorm forced the postponement of this year’s pageant at East Church; nonetheless, the story will be told yet again, and so even now, this year’s cast of players – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and Magi, lambs, angels and of course the baby himself – are all awaiting their cues, ready to share anew the joy of that silent, holy night in Bethlehem long ago; with perchance, a bit of our story revealed therein.
Alleluia, indeed… and Merry Christmas.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry