Pageants are fun, if slightly unbelievable.
Each year script writers (like me) take parts of the Luke and Matthew birth stories, interpret them in a modern or zany way, throw in some bad jokes and contemporary characters (this year a cat and two dogs), invite people to dress up, sing some 18th or 19th century carols, and have a fun time.
Fun is a great ingredient, essential, in the theological cake.
Here are some of the other ingredients:
Most of the pageant happens outside. Mary and Joe walk to Bethlehem from Nazareth (157 km) with a make-believe donkey along for the ride. Out in the open air the Zoroastrians walk from Persia to Palestine (1,118 km). If not walking then hitching a ride on TS Eliot’s camels. Or out in the open air shepherds look out for the sheep. Out in the open the angelic chorus sing their hearts.
And think where these scenes aren’t taking place: they are not happening in temples, synagogues, or churches (not that there were churches back then). The angels’ visits to Mary and Joseph may have happened inside a house; but nothing else happened in a house. The birth itself was in the shed out back.
Lesson: The love energy we know of as God isn’t confined to so-called holy places or indeed any place, and often is encountered we are on the road, travelling; when we’ve let go of what’s been and are venturing towards what might be.
So exercise a courage of mind and heart to embrace, to inquire, to go on a journey into the unknown and different, and take risks in doing so.
Another ingredient is that “kids get it, and kings don’t”. By ‘kids’ I’m referring to the shepherds and Mary, and by ‘kings’ to Herod. This is part of the upside-down, topsy-turvy, ways of this love energy called God.
For the shepherds weren’t just kids or teenagers, they were considered ‘shifty’ or ‘petty criminals’ in a similar way that tow truck drivers might be thought of today. Sure there are nice honest towies, but how would you feel when your daughter comes home and introduces you to one as her new boyfriend?
And of course Mary was a teenager. Not all grown up and wise and mature. And she was unmarried and pregnant! Which, a bit like a towie at an Epsom dinner party, put her on the fringes of society, on the outer of respectability.
Then there are the three wise guys. Not that we know they were three, or guys, or particularly wise. But the writer did give us a strong steer that they were Zoroastrians. Think about that for a moment. Not of the Jewish faith (like everyone else). Not Galilean or Palestinian (like everyone else). But they were from over the border, outside the Empire’s boundaries, where the enemy, the “other”, dwelt.
Lesson: The love energy we know of as God isn’t confined to so-called respectable upright people, or adults with influence and affleunce (royalty, priests, politicians), or those of our faith, our race, and our culture. The love energy we know of as God crosses borders of age, geography, religion, and criminality.
So be tolerant of the different. Step forward with a smile, with compassion and hospitality in your heart, and not step back in suspicion. Find treasure among the little ones, and the odd ones out.
Then there is the ingredient of impurity. That’s what the stable is all about. The baby was born amongst animal pooh. The rituals of cleanliness couldn’t be adhered to. It’s a similar note to that struck by having shepherds on the scene. They were impure. To say nothing of the foreign astrologers.
We find it hard to take seriously impurity today. We think we can go anywhere (with a little bottle of hand-sanitizer in our bag), eat anything, anytime we like. But it wasn’t like that in 1st century Palestine. God was pure, God liked purity, and God didn’t like impurity. God didn’t do pooh.
Lesson: The love energy we know of as God isn’t confined to what and where and who we consider pure. So don’t judge people by what they eat or wear or say, or by where they hang out, or by whom they associate with. God doesn’t fit in our pockets, or anybody’s.
Then throw in the ingredient of today, our context – the jokes (juxtaposing then and now), the cat, the dogs… - all signs of how a story is blended and baked in each time and place, even in little ol’ NZ, to produce something satisfying to the hearers and participants.
And lastly throw in a good wallop of mystery, of glitter, of music, of nostalgia, bake it for an hour or so, and you get a pageant!
This lesson is simply that the love energy we know of as God breaks out not only of religious, cultural, and class confines, but also breaks out of the confines of time. The flow of the love that transforms touches each time and place and person differently. Friendship can do it. Kindness can do it. Humour can do it. Courage can do it. Tolerance can do it. Music can do it. Lying under the stars can do it.
In this I can believe.