With our annual Rainbow Christmas program quickly approaching (December 16 at 5 pm), I thought I’d share these lovely reflections from Rehearsing Scripture by Anna Carter Florence. (I took the liberty to add a few of my own remarks in parenthesis.)
“If you’re a child, and your grown-ups have anything to do with church, sooner or later someone is going to draft you into the Christmas pageant. It will probably happen multiple times over the years, because Christmas pageants have plenty of parts for every age group. The good news about this is that you’ll rarely play the same role twice (unless you’re a diva like Renee Reimer who always got to play Mary).
Eventually you’ll age out of the sheep and cows in the stable, and move up to shepherds or angels or wise men. You might even be Mary or Joseph, one year, if the pageant director thinks you won’t be embarrassed by it, and can sit still for that long (or if the pageant director isn’t your mother).
Even babies can be in the Christmas pageant in the starring role; they won’t remember it, but they’ll grow up hearing about it, knowing they had a turn in the spotlighted manger. Adults who have long since graduated from Christmas pageant eligibility will tell you, in an offhand way, that they were baby Jesus in 1954.
I don’t remember every Christmas pageant I was ever in, but I do remember some. Does anyone remember the year Riley Long took the baby Jesus out of the manger by his feet and held him upside down while the kids sang? As Rosi said, ‘Early juggling skills.’)
I remember having to stand with the barn animals, in fuzzy pajamas, and wishing I were old enough to be in the junior choir, so I could wear a red robe with a white cassock and sing with the heavenly host. I remember being thrilled the year I was chosen to play the angel Gabriel, who had real lines and got to sit behind the pulpit and make a grand entrance. I remember being startled and secretly pleased, as a thirteen-year-old, the year I was asked to be Mary—until I heard my younger brother was going to be Joseph.
Back to Anna Carter Florence:
As an older teenager, I remember singing with the adult shepherds’ chorus the year our Christmas pageant was a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. And as a parent, I remember the year I had to sneak up front to sit in the chancel with my younger song, who was most reluctant to join the other three-year-old angels in their tinsel crowns, singing Away in a Manger.
Christmas pageants are annual celebrations for the community, showcases for the education program, and a ton of work for the adults in charge—but they’re so much more than that. They are the first place, and perhaps the only place, where we’ll learn what it’s like to switch roles in our sacred story, and so experience its verbs from another point of view. A child who plays a donkey one year, carefully guiding Mary to the manger and then nestling down in the straw to watch, will have very different verbs than the year she plays an angel in the balcony, bubbling with excitement and shouting to shepherds about good tidings of great joy. From her perspective in each role, what she hears, what she sees, and what she knows in her body will be different. Next year, maybe she’ll be a dove in the rafters. Or a shepherd in a field. Or a wise man from afar. Or an innkeeper with no more room. Eventually, she may play all those roles, each with its own set of verbs. And every one will show her something new about what it means for us that God came into the world as a tiny child to a poor family that was far from home, with nowhere to stay.”
Anna Carter Florence ends her chapter (p. 58) by encouraging us to tap into this Christmas pageant mode of being and doing whenever we read Scripture together.
“Switch roles in the text to try out new verbs. Be intentional about it. Begin with the characters that seem most natural to play, and then pick a new role. Audition for another part that goes against type. Try reading from the point of view of the prodigal son, then the older brother, then the father: what do you notice? Try standing with Pharaoh, then Pharaoh’s daughter, then Moses: What do you hear? Be a disciple and then a Pharisee, a leper and then a priest, a prophet and then the wayward people, a slave and then a landowner. There are so many parts to play in the text, with so many verbs, and each part is worth playing more than once.”