Blue Christmas 2017
Church in Brielle
December 17, 2017
The video of a Christmas pageant run amok in White Pine, TN, has gone viral this week. The cuter-than-a-bug’s-ear pre-schoolers of First Baptist Church in White Pine put on a pageant no one in the audience will ever forget. The Nativity scene starts out predictably, traditionally, with diminutive, blonde-haired, blue-robed Mary and solemn Joseph garbed in green, prayerfully in place, kneeling by the manger. A little angel with the world’s largest halo hovering over her head is like the hall monitor, standing at attention center stage and looking on adoringly. Little guys in smock-like sheep costumes, wearing wooly hats with huge black ears like pandas, watch over the invisible Baby in the makeshift crib. (One of the sheep is kneeling, the other standing, apparently balancing on his hind legs .)
There’s a 2 year old in the foreground, identified later as “my little sheep” by her mother, even though it looks like she must have lost her headgear somewhere along the way. She’s content with her role as an extra until the children’s choir starts to sing Away in a Manger. She gets into the spirit of things and decides to scoop up Baby Jesus and dance with Him in her arms. She’s happily making her moves, mugging for the camera, holding Him tight in the limelight, until a concerned, frustrated and proactive Mary decides to retrieve her Child. A tug of war ensues, with the Baby returned to the manger, tucked in, and plucked right out again, back into the sheep’s custody. Finally the sheep, apparently a wannabe contender for “So You Think You Can Dance,” is hauled off stage by her mother to the roars of the congregation. On-line the event has been dubbed the “Toddler Nativity Brawl of 2017.”
We expect an occupied, not an empty manger in a Sunday School Christmas pageant. One of my fondest memories of this sanctuary in the Church in Brielle is seeing my 4 year old daughter, Kristiane, march down this aisle with the Baby Jesus in her arms during the Church in Brielle Preschool Christmas pageant in 1999. She was cast as the midwife who helped deliver the baby, a Scriptural reach, but a delight to my mother who was in attendance, had assisted at Kristiane’s birth, and who is a certified midwife. I don’t recall the precise details, but Kristiane either presented the Baby to His mother Mary or directly laid Him down in His crib. In either case, the manger wasn’t empty for long, and once He was tucked in He stayed there, with no scene-stealing, push-me-pull-you action from the other pre-school actors!
The empty manger is the intentional focal point of Prayer Around the Creche, a quiet, candle-lit, music-rich, meditative service at Holy Trinity each year. It’s Advent, not Christmas worship, and is filled with the language of longing for the presence of Christ in the midst of emptiness. We pray that the Holy Spirit will dispel darkness with light, blindness with sight, despair with hope, hurt with comfort. We pray both that the gaping holes in our souls will be healed and that the unworthy clutter of worldly concerns that threaten to crowd out the Christ will be purged.
Grief is complicated, because on one hand it feels like something or someone has been violently pulled out of our hearts by its roots, leaving a gaping emptiness, and on the other hand grief is global, filling us with pain and the seemingly unending ache of parting. We feel both emptied of the beloved and filled with loss.
I love the image of the empty manger because it is full of reality and full of promise. It acknowledges that I am still hurting and the world is still hurting; we and the world are still waiting for healing and a fresh infusion of hope. The empty manger is a reminder that not all of God’s promises have been fulfilled yet, but we can bank on the fact that they all will be. The first lesson for this third Sunday in Advent is a magnificent promise voiced in the last part of the Book of the prophet Isaiah, a declaration of holy hope to people who had rejoiced to return from exile in Babylon and then grieved to find Jerusalem in ruins. This messenger says he’s been anointed by God to en-courage God’s people by:
· announcing good news
· binding up the brokenhearted
· comforting all who mourn
· exchanging the burnt ashes of grief for fragrant floral leis
There’s another beautiful promise in Psalm 126 assigned for this weekend:
5Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
6Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
St. Paul tells us we shouldn’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). He doesn’t say we shouldn’t grieve. It’s natural to hurt when we lose what we love. Perhaps the empty manger reflects an empty chair at the Christmas dinner table this year. The ache and the absence are real, but so is the reality of the Savior’s birth and the promise of healing in this world and heavenly reunion in the next. Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham