Scenes from a “pick-up pageant,” Christmas Eve, 2017, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
The thing about putting on a pick-up pageant is that with no sign-ups or rehearsal, you never know quite what will happen. This is both delightful and terrifying, more or less so depending on your tolerance for ambiguity.
Last year, Christmas Eve 2017, of the handful of children in attendance on a snowy winter’s evening, only two wanted to participate in the pageant. The little girl wanted to be Mary, and her brother, in all innocence, decided to play Joseph. At the designated time in the Gospel story, they came forward and sat on the step in front of the manger scene. As the story progressed, they were joined by animals and a shepherd from the cast of plaster characters behind them. Oh, and a cabbage patch Jesus.
After the Gospel was read, I sat on the step next to Mary.
“I hear you’ve been causing quite a commotion in Bethlehem tonight,” I said. “What’s been going on?”
“Well,” she cast about for context clues, coming up with, “we’ve been travelling, and we saw cows, and sheep, and maybe a goat.” Her brother nodded his agreement.
Time to move this story along.
“I heard it from an angel, who heard it from a shepherd, who heard it from his sheep, who heard it from a donkey, who heard it from an ox,” I told them, “that you had a baby tonight. Is that right?”
“Can I see him? What’s his name?”
Brother Joseph loudly stage-whispered, “Jesus!”
“Jesus,” agreed Mary. We observed a respectful moment of silence. Then,
“So I heard from this angel, who heard it from the shepherd, who heard it from the sheep, who heard it from the donkey, that not only was this baby not born in a hospital, or a birthing centre, or even a bedroom, but that he was born in a barn! The ox’s stable, to be precise! Is that right?”
“And, what’s more, I heard that when you had washed the baby and fed the baby, you wrapped him up and put him down for a nap right in the middle of the ox’s dinner, in the manger. So now what is a poor ox supposed to do for his dinner when there’s a baby in his food?”
The Mary-child pondered. “Well, he could bark at me, and then I would pick the baby up and he could eat his hay.”
(Unbeknownst to me, at this moment, a conversation was breaking out in the back pews, where my heathen husband suggested to our children that the ox should simply, as he put it, “eat the baby.”
He has form for this kind of thing. I once let him play the innkeeper. When Joseph offered the time-honoured line, “Do you have any room? We have travelled such a long way and my wife is going to have a baby,” my hospitable and heretical husband replied, “Sure! We have loads of room! Come on in!” and flung open the door.
But back to the more temperate and reliable members of the cast.)
“Good idea,” I told Mary, “but actually I heard that the ox went next door to see if his friend the donkey had any spare hay to share, and she did, so they ate dinner together, and that’s how the ox came to tell the donkey about the baby.
And the donkey is friends with a local sheep, so she told him, and the sheep told his shepherd, so when an angel showed up and sang ‘Gloria!’ and told the shepherd that a baby had been born, the shepherd said, ‘I know, my sheep told me.’
So the angel had to go off to the hillsides outside the city where the out-of-town shepherds were watching their sheep and tell them instead.
And then they came down to see what was going on, and so now the ox not only has a manger full of baby but he has a barn full of strangers to-boot, and you know what?”
“What?” Mary looks a little bewildered by now, and I can hardly blame her.
“Well,” I said, “I heard it from the angel, who heard it from a shepherd, who heard it from the sheep, who heard it from a donkey that the ox told her it was the best night of his life. Because, he said, when he looked at Jesus, it was as though he was seeing for the first time ever what life is all about.
It was as though he was seeing that God had made us for living together and for loving God and one another, all the creatures that God has made.
He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever felt.”
(I didn’t add that I had heard this from other people who have found Jesus, not necessarily, but occasionally, in their food. But I think the message was received.
“So you made quite a commotion in Bethlehem tonight,” I told Mary and her brother Joseph, “but you seem to have done quite a good job of it.”)
And everyone applauded them back to their family, where their unborn sister dreamt of her chance to star next year as the baby Jesus, and hopefully did not have nightmares of being eaten by an ox.