In ten days, on Christmas Eve, at four o’clock in the afternoon, we will host our annual Children’s Pageant. With righteously riotous joy, we, with our children in the starring roles – dressed as the Holy Family, adorned as angels, robed as shepherds and magi, and festooned in every manner of costume representing animals, surely some, like camels and sheep, depicted in the Bible and most not, lions and tigers and bears (Oh, my!), lizards and snakes, perhaps a giraffe, a turtle or two, and a skunk (and one year, two dinosaurs!) – will retell the story of the birth of Jesus.
There is reason why we base our reenactment of Jesus’ birth on the gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke. They together offer us a treasure trove of dramatic detail, allowing us to stage a performance in which Mary, engaged to Joseph, is discovered to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, whilst Roman Emperor Augustus calls for a census, leading Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and journey to Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth, wrapping her child in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger because there was no room in the inn, at which moment, angels appear terrifying shepherds in the fields who are keeping watch over their flocks and announcing the birth of the Messiah, leading the shepherds to go and see, arriving just before magi who have followed a star from the East bringing them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the one born King of the Jews and bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Now, if we relied on Mark who gives us no birth story of Jesus, but rather begins his gospel account with an adult John the Baptist proclaiming the Messiah’s coming, we wouldn’t, we couldn’t have a Children’s Pageant.
John’s gospel, also with no infancy narrative, however, commences by pulling back the hem of the cosmic curtain separating heaven and earth, allowing us a glimpse of the divine mind and will before the creation of time and space. Remember the opening words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word…What has come into being…was life, which was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Today we read, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John, who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him,” after which John confronts the authorities.
If we crafted a pageant script from John’s gospel, we would have an ultra-modest theater production; as I imagine it, in two scenes.
Scene I: A lone figure – standing in the shadows barely discernible to our eyes, but, crying out with raspy voice, loudly, unintelligibly, impossible to ignore – pointing, directing our attention to a shimmering beam of light coming from above, emanating from an unseen source.
Scene II: Other figures in flowing robes, playing the parts of priests and Levites from Jerusalem, approach and stand before the lone figure, with sternest tones, asking, “Who are you?”
The lone figure, grasping the intent of their question, answers with a voice lowered in self-denial, “I am not the Messiah.”
“Are you Elijah?” the inquisitors demand.
The lone figure responds with the hush of self-abnegation, “I am not.”
The now frustrated delegation from Jerusalem pleads, “Are you the prophet like Moses?”
With a low rumble, an impossibly nuanced mix of self-assurance and self-effacement, all at once, conveying everything and communicating nothing, the lone figure, replies, “No.”
Together, they roar, their voices jagged with anxiety and anger, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
The lone figure again points ceiling-ward to the bright shaft of light, then lowers the hand, directing our attention to the trail of the beam on the floor. “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, as Isaiah declared, ‘Make straight God’s way!’”
In Advent, the annual season of waiting for Christmas Day, we focus much attention on our preparation: gift buying and wrapping, party arranging, tree trimming, house cleaning for coming guests, meal planning, travel scheduling – all laudable expressions of our generous hospitality. It is the same, I think, for those who enter Advent, with consciously spiritual intent, to await the celebration of the birth of Jesus and his second coming. They, we, too, center our care on how well we prepare: reading and reflecting more on scripture, delving more deeply into prayer and contemplation, partaking of Eucharist on more than Sundays, engaging in introspection, searching the heart and soul to identify areas of life in need of repentance, taking on additional acts of service, especially for and with those in greater need – all worthy disciplines to ready our hearts to receive anew God’s gift in Christ.
This said, there is, for me, an essential difference between a Christmas Pageant based, on the one hand, on Matthew and Luke and, on the other, on John. A difference that goes deeper than the plethora and paucity of detail, respectively. A difference I discern in the effect each has on me.
The first, with all the characters and action, draws me to watch. The second, with a lone figure standing up against established authority calls me to witness like John. To be less about my waiting, my preparation, my readiness for Christmas, my receiving Christ and to be more about being like John; pointing beyond myself to a larger reality than even my most generous, hospitable, altruistic interests.
I dare not speak for anyone other than myself, but I do confess that pointing beyond myself is hard! One of my favorite words in all the English language is Paul, followed by I, me, mine, and myself! So, again, pointing beyond myself is hard. Nevertheless, John’s call to me is to be and do as he is and does. Doing something to bring to light the larger reality prophesied by Isaiah of individual liberation in binding up broken hearts and communal transformation in rebuilding cities.
In my life’s vocation as a minister, I, in my own time and place, in my own way, already attempt to do much of this. My approaching retirement calls me to discern how, beyond the bounds of the communities I’ve been called to serve over nearly forty years, to continue to do the work of being a witness.
But for now, in ten days, on the afternoon of December 24, as I have done for the past sixteen years, I, with a spirit of righteously riotous joy, will watch our annual Christmas Pageant.