“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”
Early last December, I made my way through a snowstorm to Royal York Road United in Toronto’s west end. I slipped into a pew near the front with a flock of wriggling sheep and one infiltrating turtle. The pew in front of us was a meringue of angels’ wings and flowing robes. All but one tiny seraph wore silver garland halos mounted on white fur headbands. The sheep and turtle were boys. The angels were girls. Teenagers tuned an electric guitar in the shadows of the transept to my left. We were ready to worship.
The pageant unfolded in ways that proved once again the perfection of chaos theory. There were shepherds (“That’s a staff not a sword, boys”) and some wonderfully bewildered Magi. They arrived from and returned to the East via the centre aisle — twice. Halfway home, they remembered they had something else to say. With whispered help from a crouching teacher, they stated the purpose of their visit. A deliciously evil and British-sounding Herod boomed his response to them from the bass section of the choir loft, “. . . and all of Jerusalem was troubled.”
Vignettes that included a contemporary Joey and Maria punctuated the ancient story. Maria, I’m guessing she was 13, bore all the signs of a lumpy pillow gestating in her womb. They confronted our romanticizing of the manger scene with the hard realities of contemporary poverty.
Mary and Joseph, the ancient ones, plunked the doll-Jesus in the manger. Throughout the remainder of the pageant they worried his blankets and hair non-stop — giving authenticity to their role of first-time parents.
A small leopard sang one of the solos.
It was joyful and beautiful. It left me nostalgic for my own young children, and the ways we played the birth story together.
“I’ll be the wolf!” three-year-old Jeremiah shouted one year as we unpacked the crèche.
“The wolf?” I asked.
“Yep! The one the shepherds have to keep from getting the sheep. You be the shepherd, Dad.” That year, wild confrontations between the wolf and the shepherd became central to the story of Jesus’ birth. The wolf snarled and circled but the shepherd banged his staff and chased the wolf, sometimes through the kitchen and back to the living room.
The Nativity stories, it seems to me, are not so much about history as they are doorways into the house of faith called Jesus. We find ourselves in his story. We play at being shepherds or Magi or sheep. If there isn’t a character that quite fits, well, there is room for a leopard or a turtle or a wolf. The story is big enough to include us all.
It is a story that evokes play, imagination and dangerous celebration — a saviour born unto us. There are hard times to come, it’s true. But for now, we sing, “Joy to the world.”
If we played the pageant together, who would you be this year? Perhaps you are with the Magi, following a star or looking for another way home, or just out frantically shopping for the perfect gift for Jesus. Maybe like the inn- keeper you are wracking your mind for somewhere to put God’s promise up for the night. Or are you, like the shepherds, filled with fear and awe of the night sky announcing the fulfilment of some promise. Maybe you are a turtle or a leopard.
This year I would be the donkey, I suppose. I would be a donkey who used to be a warrior horse. The ravages of failure, age and illness, though, have transformed me into something more humble and comical — and I say that with no disrespect toward donkeys. It feels as though maybe I am only beginning to understand what it means to carry the promised Christ on my back. Only just beginning to understand this remarkable journey, but even in my stubborn single-mindedness I have been invited to a place of honour on the journey.
It is all imagined, of course. Mostly through an amalgamation of the beginning chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke with a 13th-century contribution from St. Francis of Assisi, who is said to have made the first crèche. Perhaps we all begin our relationship with Jesus there, at the manger. The story tiptoes into our heads and hearts. Somehow, the infant conspires to draw our spirits into the story so that he can grow and mature in us. We tell Jesus’ story, and his story begins to tells ours.