(Isaiah 7:10-14, Matthew 1:18-25)
The first Christmas pageant – not the first Christmas, but the first time people dressed up in costume to play out the scene with a manger and sheep and shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph and a baby, it was the doing of St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis was the writer, director, and producer of the first Christmas pageant.
So that means our very own E.A., G.F., & L.S. stand in a spiritual lineage of Christmas Pageant stage directors whose patron saint is dear old Francis.
St. Francis knew he needed to do something imaginative and dramatic to make this old holy story come alive, be made new. So he staged a re-enactment of the event of Jesus’ birth, for the first time, and he invited folks to step into it, to try out different roles and walk around in the story, to make it their own.
You see, the church at that time had become removed from people’s lived experience. That’s a danger at any time. But at that time the problem was that the rituals were all in Latin, the Bible was only preached in Latin, and the people then didn’t understand Latin any more than we all would now. They were mystified. The priests and the bishops were the ones communing with God, and the role of a regular person was supposed to be passive in church and in their own religious life. Again, this is always a danger.
But for St. Francis, he knew that a life in the Spirit was active, passionate. He was burning with a personal relationship with Jesus. He was totally alive, totally awake to how God is moving through the world – in all its beauty, all its sadness, all its joy, all its uncertainty, all the love and loss and labor of our lives together.
And Francis knew that these old stories of our faith, from the Bible, are about exactly that, exactly this way of being alive and awake to how God is with us. But these stories aren’t just about that. No, there is more magic and mystery going on here. These stories can actually do that – they can work with us to enact this kind of awakening to how God is with us.
For that to happen, we need to step inside of these stories, we need to walk around in them, try out different roles, hear our own voice in them, see the faces of our neighbors in them, and the faces of our enemies. We can make these stories our own. And know that as we do that, in a faithful way, we’ll also discover how these stories and images can be strange and surprising, they have a power to show us something new.
So how could we see ourselves in this Christmas story? Or how would we cast the roles?
Mary was probably a teenager. She got pregnant out of wedlock. How easy or hard is it for you to imagine a teenage girl starting to question that maybe she’s pregnant? Can you imagine what it was like for her to go to the Rite Aid and get a pregnancy test, make sure no one sees her. This is a small town we’re talking about, right? So it’s like, be sure no one sees you even in that aisle, be careful which clerk you check out with.
Can you imagine the moment when she saw the results, “Wait, what does that mark mean? It’s positive?! Ohhhh … How did this happen? What am I going to do? What’re people going to say? What’s Joseph going to say?”
Maybe this isn’t at all hard to image, because it hits pretty close to home.
We’re talking about small town, traditional culture. Even if this were some freewheeling city, Mary is in a very precarious situation. And this is even before she’s nine months pregnant and they’re on the road and her water breaks and everyone’s treating them like trash and not giving them shelter in their hour of need. How quickly everything can become precarious. How quickly we can discover what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.
At least once in the Gospels, someone comes up to Jesus, as a grown man, and talks to him sideways, and makes certain suggestions about the circumstances of his conception. There was a shame that people tried to throw at him from the start.
So there is an original scandal here in the life of Jesus. And that’s just the first of many of his scandals. And the biggest scandal of them all is that this all is how God is choosing to become revealed.
How can we identify with all this? How do we identify with Mary? How do we identify with Joseph, when he gets this news from Mary and needs to make a decision, whether to join her even if it’s hard or whether to leave? How do we identify with Jesus, who was born with this original scandal? How do we identify with the neighbors who are doing all this sideways talking?
However we answer these questions the challenge this story poses for us is how can we let ourselves be surprised by a scandalous God, a God who is at work in the places and through the people that we have judged to be unworthy. Maybe that’s even ourselves.
We have one last role to consider.
In the story the agents for God’s surprise are the angels.
Now, in our children’s pageant, the angels are totally lovely, sweet, beautiful.
But in the Bible, angels are terrifying.
Most people, when they experience an angel, want to run the other way. This is pretty insightful, I’d say. If you’d had, you know, a holy kind of experience, many times there can be some real fear involved. Awesome and awful can come very close when it comes to an encounter with a Tremendous Mystery. But with these experiences, as with the angels in the Bible, the message ends up being, “Do not be afraid. Have peace. I bring good news.” Do not be afraid.
When Mary and Joseph each experience a messenger from God, in the midst of all this scandal and uncertainty, it’s remarkable that they don’t want to run the other way. They are ready. And the message they receive is, Do not be afraid. People may act like this is a scandal, the way may be hard, but God is with you.
God is moving through you as you move through this life – in all its beauty, all its sadness, all its joy, all its uncertainty, all the love and loss and labor of our lives together.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered December 18, 2016, Fourth Sunday of Advent, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla. By Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg).
Image: Nativity Scene Minus Jews and Immigrants from the Middle-East (plus a Holstein cow, apparently)