God With Us Now

And a little child shall lead them.     Isaiah 11:6

I’ve supervised a lot of Christmas pageants over the years, but perhaps the most memorable was the year I started ministry at one of my former churches.  This church had been through a very rough patch and its membership had plummeted to about 40 in weekly worship.  I got there the first Sunday of Advent and they were clearly depressed.  They had been through some trouble with previous pastors and they weren’t too sure about me.  Some of them probably thought I had been sent to close their church.

There was no Sunday School, and no Christmas pageant was planned.  That didn’t seem right to me.  So I rummaged around in the unused classrooms and came across an old box of bible costumes.  (Every church has a box of bible costumes somewhere in its catacombs!)  Basically, they were all bathrobes.  I took them home, washed and ironed them and gathered up all my scarves.  I made three crowns out of gold paper and found a big stick out in the woods.

The Sunday before Christmas, I hung all the costumes on a portable wardrobe in front of the church.  I read the Christmas story from Luke and then explained to the congregation that we were going to perform a  pageant.

“Who wants to be Joseph?” I asked.  After an awkward pause, a man raised his hand.  It was our choir director.  I put a bathrobe on him–it fit pretty snugly around his belly.  People smiled as he put on a scarf.

I picked up a baby doll.  “Who wants to be Mary?”

A woman in her sixties came forward and put on a bathrobe and took the baby.  An elderly man donned a sheepskin hood with ears sewn on it, and a boy took up the shepherd’s staff.  This went on until we had a complete cast of characters to make up the manger tableau.  I read the story again and each person, without direction, came forward to play their part in the drama.  When it was over we sang “Away in A Manger”.  It was the first time I saw people laugh in worship.

The make-shift pageant coaxed them out of their grief about the past, at least for the moment.  It also suspended their uncertainty about the future.  It was a ritual performed in the present, focused on Emmanuel: God with us right now.  It brought us all to realize that, no matter what had happened in the past, or what might happen in the future, God was coming to be with us now, if only we would wrap ourselves in light and take our places in the pageant of his arrival.

There would be ten more Christmas pageants for me with that congregation.   There would be awkward teenage kings and tiny toddler lambs and grown women holding real babies, and once: a live goat.  And then, the pageants at that church would end.

But I feel certain that Jesus came to all of them.

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