Honoring festival, mystery and the rational...

One of the joys of being the pastor of a small church arrives in the form of the annual Christmas pageant. I know many pastors HATE them - and I understand that they can be a hassle filled with competition and disappointment in larger congregations - but they have always been a small taste of heaven in my experience. I didn't like the large production that took place in my first congregation in Michigan. They were ok, but were mostly an excuse for the music director to put on something akin to liturgical community theatre. And it was mostly for the adults with very little relationship to the Christmas story.

My Christian Education director in Cleveland, a staff member with deep faith and skill, introduced me to a simple Christmas narrative that works for children of any age. It is mostly a tableaux with simple costumes, congregational carol singing and minimal movement and props. Over the years I have amended it to include a few speaking parts for older children. But, for nearly 30 years, it has been a staple that I have used to great satisfaction.
One of the things that I love about doing these pageants is that it gives all the youth and children in the congregation a place to shine. The shy ones can be quiet and demure, the "hams" can be over the top and the sincere and/or pious ones can go into that mystical place. As we often say during the invitation to the Eucharist: Come, there is a place for everyone at this table. And in a child-size way, this often becomes the truth - at least for a time - during these pageants.

For the past five years, we having been using our simple liturgy as our "Christmas Eve Everyone Welcome No Rehearsal Necessary Pageant" to great success. But this year, with a decision to try to reclaim both the full 12 Days of Christmas and the full season of Epiphany, we decided to try an Epiphany Pageant and Party. I wasn't sure if I would get any takers, but 15 children made the effort to be a part of the fun - and about 85 people came to honor the feast today, too. Our Epiphany Party was packed as we sang, "Children go where I sent thee..." and "the 12 days of Christmas."

It wasn't clear to me as this week unfolded that very much would come to pass: my secretary has been caring for a husband who is slowly adjusting to newly diagnosed heart problems, my custodian has been out of commission for 5 days with respiratory problems and we've had two snow storms. But when the word went out that we needed help shoveling snow and opening the Sanctuary, volunteers popped out of the woodwork and got the job done. Families made certain their little ones were at Saturday practice. And by 10:25 this morning no one knew all the curve balls that had been flying all week long and a good time was had by all.
Two things struck me after my afternoon nap:

+ First, people want to help and participate in this church. They may be very busy - it may be hard for many to make a commitment that involves being present consecutively week after week for study or worship events - but this congregation wants to serve and help one another and care for our wider community, too. They also want their children to experience what is valuable in a faith community: a sense of sharing, a common commitment to Christ, a core of songs and prayers that are known by heart. It was encouraging and refreshing for me to see how well everything came together today.
+ Second, intergenerational events that are well-planned and truly engaging offer something to everyone that simply can not be experienced in the secular culture. We spent a lot of time singing together; where do children learn the folk and spiritual songs of our culture except at church? A guest said to me after worship: There was so much music today - and it was so good - from jazz and hymns to carols and folk songs. We laughed a lot together today, too. And while we needed the assistance of some microphones, there was precious little technology involved for most of the celebration. It was just older people and young parents being together with children and new friends sharing songs and good food.

Howard Rice notes in his study, Reformed Worship, that there must
always be three elements in what we do on Sunday morning - festival, mystery and rationality. "If any one of them is too little present, the result is often an unmet hunger in the people and a sense of dissatisfaction." I think he is right in spades and today's response to both helping making worship happen, and, the enthusiasm for the feast underscores for me the beauty of what God is doing within this congregation.

Next week we will start to embrace the season of Epiphany with intentionality.  It is often a throw away liturgical season because it gets lost in children going back to school after Christmas, the winter "blahs" and all the rest. As I was speaking this morning about the Magi, however, it hit me that the old African-American spiritual, "hush, hush, somebody's calling my name" might be at the heart of the spirituality of Epiphany. Is this a season for quiet "noticing and savoring?" When I began the program for spiritual direction, we were taught the value of both noticing when a person was going deeper; and then encouraging them to savor that time.  
We shall see. I simply know that today I give thanks for the families, friends and children who made a commitment to celebrate the story of Christmas in a full and festive way that honored both the mystical and the rational presence of the sacred in our midst.
UPDATE:  So after I posted the pictures from today's Epiphany party I got a note of encouragement from one of today's helpers. Part of his message spoke of the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (my friend rang the church bells this morning.) Well, it seems that this old story starts on the Feast of the Epiphany which back in the day was also that wild, upside-down, totally counter-cultural celebration of...THE FEAST OF FOOLS.

Hmmm... the foundational text for my doctoral dissertation was a slim volume by theologian Harvey Cox:  The Feast of Fools.  And, as those in the know recall, the last chapter of this book became the focus and the inspiration for the musical "Godspell." Maybe next year, in addition to our Epiphany Part we might need to reclaim a bit of 21st century Feast of Fools?  We shall see...

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