We assembled in the first pews after Mass, the cast reflecting our parish in the vast span of ages, 2 to 81. We gathered on this Rose Sunday in Advent to rehearse our Living Crèche Christmas Pageant, to be performed next Sunday, December 18.
As we sang the carols and read the verses from Luke 2, we became part of the story, telling it again, bringing it to life with our words and song. Dramas like this were done since the earliest days in the Church to teach the glorious events of that first Christmas. And so we continue to tell and to teach, to act out, to paint a canvas of love on the chancel steps.
The organ, high above in the loft at the other end of the sea of pews and walls of stained glass, sent its rich tones soaring toward us, and we caught them and sent them back. It was as though we were wrapped in music and words, in this tableau called a Living Crèche. We were a wrapped gift decorated with the ribbon of music, ribbons curling with joy, ribbons tying us close to one another, closer to love.
Advent is a time of preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation, the eternal entering time, the Word becoming flesh, the light entering the darkness. Christmas expands our universe and pulls us into Heaven. The reality of God’s love is too large for us to grasp, and so we shrink it into pieces of art, pieces of truth shared in a way that we can fathom, that we can touch. We domesticate this awesome God, this magnificent transcendent God who searches for us and within us, who desires us with him forever, who loves us so.
And so the Church, from the earliest days, has used art to touch us with the love of God. With image, drama, poetry, music, dance, God reaches out to us. For God is the burning bush and we cannot bear his brilliance. Moses approaches with care. So do we. We are frail human beings, made of dust who will return to dust. So, in our tentative frailty, we listen to stories. We look at paintings and icons. We sing hymns and carols. We allow a booming organ to enter our hearts on the chancel steps. We domesticate the brilliance, the magnificence, with art, glorious art.
T.S. Eliot said that mankind cannot bear very much reality. Truth and beauty find their way to us even so, if we watch and listen, if we are awake. The love of God shatters the universe into billions of stars, and becomes a tiny baby born in a stable. For, as St. John says, God is love, and it is this reality that is the good news of Christmas. It is this truth that mankind yearns for, hopes that it really is true. It is this love, the source of all creation, that we fear is simply too good to be true. And yet it is.
Love shatters us for it sees us as we are, broken and selfish, but remakes us into who we should be. Love takes our shattered fragments and puts them back together, healing us, making us whole.
The Living Crèche tells the story of God’s love for us. One by one, each character steps up the aisle. One by one, they are added to the picture painted, each adding to the whole. We begin with Adam and Eve, then enters Isaiah, Mary, Gabriel, Joseph, shepherds, and the heavenly host of angels. With each one, the song grows, the story is born in a stable in Bethlehem. Each one journeys up the long aisle from the narthex to the chancel, a pilgrimage to God with God, just like our lives in time, from birth to death to Heaven.
We take our places in the chancel, and behind us the tabernacle holds the Real Presence of Christ. Tall tapers flame on the altar, framing God among us, Emmanuel, God with us. The flaming candles remind us of light in the darkness. They remind us of the warmth of God’s love. They remind us of life itself.
The story of Christmas is so fantastic it could never have been invented. It is a story that has a reliable historical pedigree, told and retold through the ages, by reliable witnesses. The Gospels, as Classics scholar C.S. Lewis points out, read as history, not fable or myth. They read as an account of events, marvelous, incredible events, good news for mankind:
“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.” (KJV John 10-14)
In Advent we tell the glorious story as we wait for Christmas, the Word made flesh, the Incarnation.