Christmas Eve Sermon by Rev Jenny Carter
(Based on Luke 2:1-14)
I want to tell you a story about a fighting donkey, a bouncing baby, and the weirdness of time. It happened in Trail BC, somewhere in the late 1980’s. I wish I could be more precise about the “when” of it all, but time has a way of blurring the details of a thing. Yet I know it was the late eighties because my daughter (who is now 32) was still firmly rooted in the “Little Mermaid” movie, black patent leather party shoes and frilly socks, and the myriad of other things 4 year olds hold dear.
We had begun attending Trail United Church fairly regularly, which was a bit of a shock since I hadn’t attended any kind of church since early adolescence, and my husband had never even been inside of one. Yet there we were. Young parents, small child, amid a sea of faith we were just all beginning to learn how to navigate. When I think back to that time, I remember it as a time of peace and calm – and a deepening of spirit.
Well, it was all of those things until it came to our first Christmas in that church. Which is where the donkey, the bouncing baby and my new appreciation of time comes in. It was the Sunday of the annual church pageant. That beautiful and awkward annual event where well-meaning adults decide to help the children in their midst learn the story of Jesus’ birth in the Bethlehem stable through the art of drama. So for weeks ahead of time the storage rooms in church basements are gone through, costumes are salvaged from dusty confines, back drops are constructed, and children are cajoled into taking a part in this annual drama. It’s the kind of thing where all the little girls want to be an angel, little boys want to be wise men, but will settle for the standard bathrobe shepherd’s costume (probably because shepherds get to carry sticks), and where no child, and I mean no child, wants to be baby Jesus.
Looking back on that first church pageant, we all should have known we were in for a bumpy ride. It’s like the planets aligned in a great conspiracy against us. The woman in charge was (and is) a beautiful human being. Yet she had never even been in a play, let alone directed one – nor had she spent any real time with children, let alone 50 of them, most under the age of 5. We parent helpers were all similarly well meaning, but not really much help. When I look back at my own participation – clueless is the only word that works.
The day of the pageant arrives and the real trouble starts. The two brothers who were to share space in the donkey costume, didn’t come. So we had to find replacements that had never been in the suit, didn’t know their cues, and who (it turns out) didn’t much care for each other. About 10 little girls were crying because they couldn’t be angels, and they really, really wanted to be angels. And of course, the children who were going to be Joseph and Mary became suddenly shy, and wouldn’t even look at each other, let alone say their lines.
The pageant begins. Mary and Joseph begin their long walk down the church aisle that leads to the Bethlehem stable, which is painted cardboard in front of the pipe organ. They walk so fast that they arrive to the front of the church in record time, and where Mary gets flustered and sits on what she thought was a bale of hay, but turns out to have been the manger. They walked so fast that they didn’t notice that they had left the donkey far behind. Which is unfortunate, because the two boys in the donkey suit were arguing, and their solo walk down the aisle made this perfectly clear to all who were there. Mothers looked concerned as the loud, colourful words (the ones you don’t say around grandma) emanated from both ends of the donkey. Fathers began to smile as the donkey then began to convulse as the two boys began to fight for the lead. After what seemed like an eternity, the donkey arrives up front, and collapses on the chancel stairs.
Our fearless leader, through a series of hisses and arm waving, managed to get Mary out of the manger, and that is when the pageant really went off the rails. Because when Mary stood up, it was clear that someone had forgotten to put the baby Jesus doll into the manger. You could tell that from a distance, because a cabbage patch kid doll is noticeable, even if it is wrapped in a blanket.
Undaunted, and with a determined look upon her face, she spotted the baby Jesus doll – and she grabbed it and began to crawl around to the back of the cardboard set. The play had ground to a halt, since she was the one to feed the children their lines when they had forgotten them, and since she was on her hands and knees behind the set and not available to them, the only line that had been uttered up to this point was the angel who said, “Be not afraid.” After that is was just a bunch of kids shuffling their feet, periodic throat clearings and coughing from the audience, and a bunch of parent helpers looking confused.
And that’s when it happened. To this day I don’t know what possessed her. But somewhere amid the stress and strain of that performance, she thought it wise to go behind the set and launch baby Jesus high into the air – high enough to clear the back-drop – and with enough force to get him all the way to the manger. And God bless her – it almost worked! She almost deposited that baby Jesus doll right smack dab in the manger. She was only out about six inches. Which, as it turns out, was most unfortunate. You see that doll hit the side of the manger, and because it was made of rubber, it bounced high into the air. All the little hands on stage shot up to catch it, but none could reach it – and so the baby Jesus doll flew into the front row of the congregation, where it bounced a couple of more times before sliding to a stop beneath Mrs. Lauer’s feet.
Have you ever had an experience where time seemed to stop? Where all activity ceases and people seem to be frozen in place – not even daring to breathe? That’s what happened when the baby Jesus doll finally came to rest at the feet of those in the first pew. Time stopped. Breath was stilled. Nobody moved.
And then as if given a divine cue – an eruption. Laughter. Uproarious, unrestrained laughter. Pure joy. The worldly spell of having to be perfect and to do what was expected – the social demands heaped upon the heads of our children (who didn’t want to have to do that play in the first place) – not to mention the demands we adults placed upon ourselves to be models of piety in a church setting – all gone. The worldly spells of over doing and over achieving, and being so self-critical that are so prevalent in our living, especially at Christmas, were broken.
Leaving in its wake – Christmas. The celebration of life and love. The celebration of knowing that somehow in all of the chaos, and noise, and conflict of our lives and world – the good news of Jesus’ birth, the good news of the incarnation (or God becoming one with us) – can still be felt. It can still break through the noise of our distracted culture and our own restless souls. In that moment, all those years ago, when time stood still – the good news broke through – and our response was one of pure joy.
It is very easy to feel the pressures of life – there are a lot of them. Given the demands on our time, and our desire to make the best of our lives by tending to family and friends, community and world – we can lose track of the very things that make life meaningful. Lose track of things like hope, and peace, and joy and love. Lose track of all those holy moments where God somehow breaks into our routines, assumptions and expectations, and causes time to stop – if only for a moment – so that we might catch a glimpse of what could be, if we simply stopped long enough to let it be.
In so many ways this is the message of tonight’s story. In the midst of chaos and noise and confusion – God will be born where we need God to be born. God comes in the quietest of moments suspended in the drama of life. So no matter the drama, no matter the struggles any of us might be facing – this night reminds us to look for the moments where time stills, and breathing pauses – for those are the holy moments. Those are the moments where we are reminded that we exist in a grand and holy universe and we are not alone. Those are the moments that remind us of who we are. Those are the moments that remind us that life is bigger and more wonderful and more hope filled than we could have ever imagined. Those moments, are Christmas moments – and they come – not just on Christmas Eve – but they come wherever we are, and whenever we remember to look for them.