December 22, 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
This “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant” is borrowed from Rev. Dan Harper, who adapted and modified it for use at First Unitarian in New Bedford from Rev. Jory Agate of First Parish in Cambridge, who got it from someone else. This version was modified by Deborah Sokolove for Seekers Church from the Harper version found at https://www.danielharper.org/archive/?p=40, which says that it is in the public domain.
Parts: Mary, Joseph, Caesar Augustus, Herod, Wise Persons, Stable Animals, Star, Angels, Shepherds, Sheep
Places: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Fields, Jerusalem,
The Christmas story is rooted in old, old tales of the winter solstice. In ancient times in Europe, when the solstice came, our distant ancestors sometimes told stories of a miraculous child born to return us to the light. Throughout the world, people tell stories of a child born to a royal family, or to an important and rich family, who would grow up to lead humankind into a time of truth and justice.
The early Christians adapted these stories of miraculous births — but they added a twist to the old stories. Their miraculous child was not the son of a king, but was merely the son of a carpenter; he was not the son of a wealthy queen, but was instead the son of a woman whose only wealth was her willingness to accept the task. And that Christian story has been told and retold innumerable times since those early Christians first began telling it 18 or 19 hundred years ago.
We are going to recreate the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus this morning, and like many Christmas pageants, we’ll draw on two early Christian accounts of Jesus’s birth, from the books of Matthew and Luke.
Instead of just listening to or watching the story of the birth of Jesus, we are going to get inside it. Try to forget that you’ve ever heard this story before: even though you recognize the familiar characters, even though you remember the familiar plot, try to hear this story as if this if the first time you’ve heard it. At various points in the story, I am going to ask if some of you would be willing to come up play the parts of some of the characters in the story. Don’t worry, you won’t have to speak! When I pause and ask for volunteers to play parts in the story, just come on up, whether you have a costume or not.
Ready? Then let’s begin…
If you wish, close your eyes for a moment. Transport yourself to another time and another place. Imagine that a story is going to unfold before your very eyes, a brand-new story you’ve never heard before.
Imagine that after years and years of hearing stories about women and men bowing down before powerful kings and emperors and dictators and tyrants, you finally hear a story in which three powerful wise people kneel down alongside some shepherds before one tiny, new-born child.
Imagine that after years of hearing story after story telling of terrible wars, you are at last hearing the friendly story of a baby: the story of a humble carpenter and his wife, the baby that is born to them in a stable, shepherds in a star-lit field who go to see the new-born child, and peaceful animals who gather round in the stable where the baby lies in the cow’s feeding trough. Imagine that at last you are going to hear a story in which everyone is longing for peace on earth and good will to everyone, everywhere.
Imagine that after years of hearing stories about the results of hatred and oppression and persecutions, you finally are hearing a story about the transforming power of love.
Now slowly open your eyes. Listen and watch carefully. When you hear your character mentioned, come on up and silently act out your part.
Would anyone who is dressed like Caesar Augustus come up and silently act out your role?
In those days, long, long ago, a decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who said:
“All the world should be registered so they can pay taxes to me!”
Now would all the Marys and Josephs please walk around the room and stop when you get to the sign that says “Bethlehem”? It’s a long journey, so go slowly. Oh, and this first scene is a starlit night, so could everyone else please hold up your hands like this [show], as if your hands are twinkling stars…
All the people were required to go to the town where they had been born to register. For some people, that meant a long journey. Joseph, a carpenter, had to go all the way from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David. He went with Mary, the woman he was planning to marry, because she was expecting a child. They started on their long journey, traveling by day, and sometimes even by night, their road lit only by stars.
Joseph and Mary knew it was not going to be easy, what with Mary almost ready to have her baby. At least they had a donkey that Mary could ride on. And at least the twinkling stars made the road seem friendly.
Thank you for the stars — now that Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, you can put your hands down.
When Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, they discovered that there was no room at the inn. But the inn was the only place in town with comfortable beds. The only place Mary and Joseph could find place to take shelter was in a stable cut into the side of a hill. So they settled in to sleep there among the animals.
Would all the animals (except the sheep – you’ll be in the next scene) please gather around Mary and Joseph?
The gentle animals welcomed Joseph and Mary into their stable. And that very night, the time came for Mary to give birth. It was a stable, so when the baby was born of course there was no cradle for Mary to lay her baby in. But one of the cows was kind enough to lend her feeding trough for a cradle, and Joseph and Mary laid their new baby there among the hay in the feeding trough.
Shepherds, sheep, and angels, please gather near the sign that says “ fields”…
In that region, there were shepherds who lived for months at a time out in the fields, watching over their flocks of sheep by night. They had to watch over their sheep because there were wolves in the hills that would gladly eat a sheep, if they could get one.
On this night, as the shepherds stood watch in their fields, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and this angel was truly magnificent, and the glory of the God of the Israelites shone around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, the shepherds were terrified. But the angel spoke gently, saying to them:
“Do not be afraid, for I have appeared to bring you good news of great joy for all the people of Israel. To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah. This will be a sign to you: you will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cow’s feeding trough.”
Would everyone else please join the angelic host?
Then the angel who had spoken went on to say:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth let there be peace and goodwill among all people everywhere.”
And there was a whole host of angels singing and praising God, and the shepherds were amazed.
Upon hearing the message from their God, and hearing the songs of the angel choir, the shepherds said to one another, “This is amazing! Let’s go up to Bethlehem and actually see the baby the first angel told us about!” Being good shepherds who cared about their sheep, they brought the sheep along.
Shepherds, sheep, and angels, please go over to Bethlehem….
So the shepherds went to Bethlehem with their sheep, and there they found Mary and Joseph and the new baby, just as that angel had told them. Afterwards, the shepherds would tell everyone what the angel had said to them about Mary and Joseph’s new baby, and everyone who heard their story was amazed.
As for Mary, she already knew her baby was wonderful. But she listened carefully to what the shepherds said, and treasured all she heard in her heart.
The shepherds and sheep gathered around the feeding trough admiring the baby. They praised their God for this wonder of new birth, and they prayed and hoped that what the angel said would come true — that there would be peace on earth and goodwill for all people, even for lowly shepherds.
Ok, Stars and Wise People, it’s time for your part of the story…
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three wise persons, who were kings and queens from the Far East, came to Jerusalem.
As these three wise persons journeyed their long, slow journey to Bethlehem (actually, it took them 12 days to get there, which is why we talk about the twelve days of Christmas), they noticed that their way was lit by a large and bright star.
Who is ready to be King Herod? Please go to Jerusalem to meet the wise persons….
First the wise persons went to visit King Herod.
And these wise persons went to Herod and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the skies and we have come to praise him and bring him gifts.”
The three wise persons learned from King Herod about a prophecy which had been spoken long ago, that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So the wise persons set out for Bethlehem, and as they walked, they saw ahead of them the star as they first had seen it in the Far East.
The wise persons followed the star until it stopped over the stable where the newborn child was lying in the cow’s feeding trough.
When the wise persons entered the stable and saw the new baby, they were overwhelmed with joy at this new life. They knelt down to worship him, and they opened their bags and brought out gifts of gold (because the crowns of kings were made of gold) and frankincense and myrrh (myrrh was what was put in the oil used to anoint kings). And then, because they were warned in a dream, they went back to their own country by a different way than they had come.
Later, Mary and Joseph went off to Egypt before returning to Nazereth, but that’s a story for another day. Today, let’s stay in Bethlehem for a few more minutes and think about why the animals and the shepherds and the angels and the wise persons all came to admire a tiny new baby.
One reason is that the birth of a child always brings hope for the future. And for a people who lived under oppressive Roman rule, all the while longing for liberation, the birth of a child must have been fraught with extra meaning. Will this be the child who leads us to freedom? Will this be the child who breaks our bonds of slavery and establishes a reign of peace and righteousness?
So it is in our world today. In a world that sometimes seems hopeless, we still look with hope to the future. Every time a baby is born, we hope that this child will be one of the ones who leads us to a world of righteousness. And every time we tell this Christmas story, it reminds us that we, too have our parts to play in the work for liberation and justice. We — you and I — are the ones who are responsible for making sure the world is a better place for all the babies that are born. Amen.