It was cold and windy when we arrived at church this morning for our Living Crèche Christmas Pageant. The Bay Area has had a little rain this weekend, and for this gift from the heavens we are grateful. Still, it was cold, bitingly cold, at least for us softies in California.
I had placed extra gold garlands in a Sees shopping bag along with an angel costume made from a white sheet I found last night in a linen closet. My notes from last year’s Christmas Pageant warned me we had run out of costumes, so I made my own this year, freeing up the choir cottas for the littler angels. This morning, in the dark before dawn, I grabbed some pins for Mary’s headscarf and a pair of scissors and whatever safety pins that caught my eye in a drawer.
I was all set.
Each year I look forward to wearing my wings, and I suppose this might be evidence of early senility at the age of sixty-eight, but I like to think I am flourishing a child-like spirit, an attitude, as I recall, our Lord Jesus commanded us to cultivate. So I am.
My husband and I crossed the parking lot with our bags and found refuge in the warm church, where I soon greeted our young Mary, a sweet precocious nine-year-old. We found the Sunday School rooms and laid out the costumes and went to work costuming children and adults as they came in from the cold.
Our “Living Crèche Christmas Pageant” is a multi-generational effort (lucky for me). Children watch and learn from working with adults, hopefully, as we support one another. The children know that they too are part of this Great Story of Christmas in the creation of a living crèche. We all sense this is far more than play-acting. In some solemn, holy, joyful way, we are creating, through lessons, carols, and tableau, not a performance but a prayer, a parish family prayer. This is no small thing.
The Great Story of Christmas – the Incarnation, God becoming man, taking on human flesh to redeem us – is a cosmic prayer. But even more than a prayer, it is a prayer-dialog. It is part of a conversation begun with Adam and Eve, one that is never-ending. And that moment in Bethlehem when Christ was born, when God the Son became one of us, was an intimate crucial moment for us all, a turning point in human history. In that moment Almighty God kissed us. He held us in his embrace.
The Great Story of Christmas is God’s love song to humanity. And since his coming among us over two thousand years ago, Christians have responded, have sent heavenward their own love songs to God, through art, music, pageantry, and liturgy. The conversation is never-ending, for these responsorial prayers will be sung in turn between Heaven and Earth until the end of time.
One of the beauties of the Living Crèche is that the tableau – this still-life living scene – is created in layers as the congregation sings and the lessons are read (usually Luke 2 and part of Matthew). In our parish we begin with Adam and Eve and their Fall from grace. They remain “on stage” (in this case the chancel, above the steps) as the rest of the story is added: the Annunciation (the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel), the Incarnation (the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, Baby Jesus). Soon shepherds of Earth and angels of Heaven step solemnly up the aisle to honor this newborn king. When all have taken their places, after Scripture and carols, the tableau is complete and we have told with our lives the Great Story of Christmas.
I thought of this as I put on my wings this morning in the Sunday School room. Another angel helped me and straightened my garland halo. Our heavenly host was ready to fly to the manger, set before the high altar in the sanctuary. We gathered in the narthex to await our moment of entry through the double doors, our stepping up the red-carpeted aisle to help create our living crèche.
Our ages spanned eighteen months to sixty-eight. Some of the young adults in our cast had been part of the Living Crèche when they were toddlers, and now they brought their own children to create memories, to hearten hearts, so that they could share this experience with their children, to enliven lives with the love of God come among us, Emmanuel.
We processed up the aisle and told the story with our living bodies. We became the sculpted art of God’s great love. We recessed out, having taken part in God’s love song by singing our own song in response to him. We knew as we left the warm church and re-entered the cold world we carried his love inside us. We could hear the melody, feel the beat of God’s heart within our own.
And this is the gift of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us, God in us.