Many of us growing up in the Western Christian church starred in the annual Christmas pageant, a memory nostalgic for some and terrifying for others. There were the coveted roles of Mary and Joseph (which often involved internal church politics) and in descending significance: three kings, various shepherds, angels and assorted animals and passers-by. To quote singer songwriter Larry Norman who was actually talking about getting a part in an Opera, “…and then I found out that everyone got a part, and I was a tree.”
That was me. A tree, or cow, or fence post. I do confess that I got to be a shepherd once and a wiseman another time, but never made it to the big time. I never played Mary or Joseph.
For reasons that seemed obvious but unspoken, nobody actually alive was allowed to play Jesus. Parents preferred and lobbied for their kids to be shepherds, since they only required an old bathrobe and sandals for costuming. Often as the opening curtain lifted, we had a lot of shepherds but were missing a wise man. Angels were struggling with their halos. Somebody’s little brother had inserted himself into the middle of the play in his street clothes. What seemed bedlam and chaos usually ended up quite endearing and wonderful.
Does anyone really care that much that these plays have little to do with the actual historical events and more with mashing together a hodgepodge of traditions and narratives? I don’t. That wasn’t the point in putting on the Christmas play then and it still isn’t today.
The original scriptures are considerably different from our nativity scenes. They’re full of pathos and loss, declaration and celebration, all on a very small scale.
What we call “the Christmas story” took place over the period of almost two years and didn’t involve all the characters for which we had parts. Yes, there was Mary, Joseph, Jesus and some shepherds that night. But we don’t know what day it was, probably not December 25th, or even what year. There were angels giving directions to the shepherds, but they didn’t sing. There is no record of animals in attendance, that’s just an assumption. It took the wise men (probably Iraqi astronomers – did I mention they were the good guys?) almost two years to get there and we don’t know how many of them there were or what their names were.
And I can almost guarantee that it wasn’t a silent night and that Jesus pooped and cried like any other human baby.
But that isn’t the point.
The point is that this unmarried homeless couple witnessed a birth of their son, and that son was God forever joining us as the weakest, most fragile and dependent, a child. The point is more like the chorus of Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Cry of a Tiny Babe.”
Like a stone on the surface of a still river // Driving the ripples on forever // Redemption rips through the surface of time // In the cry of a tiny babe