A Living Nativity
Christmas Eve 2011-Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching
We learned a lot of Bible stories when we were children: Moses in the bulrushes, Daniel in the lion’s den, Elijah on the mountain, Peter walking on the water, Jesus feeding the multitude, and more, but the Christmas story was the only story we became a part of through our pageants and living nativities.
Over the last two Sundays at Belmont our children have participated in a living nativity. They have donned costumes of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, the magi, angels and sheep and have stood in the stable found in our foyer. There they lived out the story that was read tonight from the Gospel of Luke.
As a child we always participated in Christmas pageants in our church. The children would be dressed in their costumes—robes made out of old cloth or bathrobes, halos fashioned from gold Christmas garland, and angels’ wings made from coat hangers and crepe paper. A farmer would offer straw for the manger and someone would bring their best baby doll for the baby Jesus. The story from Luke would be read, sometimes interspersed with appropriate carols or anthems. These pageants and living nativities represent the real world, because though they are staged, something usually goes a little wrong and the onlookers are reminded that God came into an imperfect world. Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem was not staged or flawless.
I remember one church that had an outdoor living nativity each year hosted by the youth. The youth would spend a couple of days setting it up and they would line the winding drive to the church with luminaries made from paper sacks, sand and candles. People, mostly parents and their friends, could drive through the church parking lot and view the scenes from their warm cars. There were three different scenes--the holy family in a crude stable near the entrance of the driveway, shepherds and angels on the hillside not far away, and the wise men were over in the east near the church dumpster. One year the luminaries fell over in the wind and started a small grass fire. It was quickly extinguished but people noted that it added to the astonished looks on the shepherds’ faces.
With his permission I relate the story our oldest son’s first Christmas pageant. He was 4 years old and he had a baby brother. When we knew the baby was coming we bought a baby doll for him because he kept asking how big the baby would be. We used the doll to teach him how to hold the baby and he held his baby brother many times. At the Christmas pageant he was assigned the role of a shepherd and he came home from rehearsal frustrated that the little girl who had the role of Mary did not hold the baby correctly. “She would make a terrible mother!” he exclaimed. I tried to reassure him that it didn’t matter.
The night of the pageant I noticed that Mary did hold the baby Jesus as though she were trying to palm a basketball at her side, but somehow her sweetness made up for it. We were in the audience with the other church members, and Lars was trying to get our attention to show us what Mary was doing wrong. Then he handed his shepherd’s staff off to another shepherd and I gulped, “Huh oh!” Before I could swallow he had snatched the baby Jesus out of Mary’s arms. Then he whacked the Mother of God on the head with the doll and said, “You are doing it wrong! Hold the baby like this!” He proceeded to show the now tearful Mary how to hold the baby Jesus correctly, handed the baby back to her, took his staff back and went back to his shepherdly duties. My wife and I tried to pretend we were invisible. This is why those stereotypes of wayward pastor’s children get perpetuated.
That first living nativity was not staged and it was not picture perfect. There was a bit of chaos; nothing went as had been planned or hoped for. There were noises and smells and lots of reality.
The beautiful thing about the living nativity is that we are not merely reading a story we are part of the story and the story has become part of us. We are the shepherds, frightened by the angels’ singing; we are Mary and Joseph, joyful over the birth of a child and wondering about the future ahead of them, and we are the angels offering “glorias” from above, and we are the curious visitors on their way from the east. We are the animals and the innkeeper, bystanders in God’s story.
We are the living nativity. We don’t dress up in costumes and pretend, but we know that we live as a part of this story every time we extend God’s love to others, every time we hold out hope for someone who is in despair, every time we offer an act of kindness, every time we model the words of the angels, “Peace on earth and good will to all.”