There were angels everywhere. Also horses, cows, sheep, and shepherds. It was twenty minutes before the pageant, and our parish hall was teeming with excited children, posing with their halos, giving out hugs, munching on a sandwich or two. It looked like all heaven had come to earth. When it was all over, the mother of a one-year-old proudly informed me that her son had been not only a cow, but a free-range one, wandering all over the church in his brown and white spots.
Christmas pageants are funny things, combining ancient tradition with homespun gaiety. The first crèche was apparently the brainchild of St. Francis, but Christmas plays have to be older than that, dating back to the great Medieval cycles of mystery plays that reenacted the great stories of our faith for those who could not read them, or for those who could. It’s all about making the Word become flesh, by any means we can.
How all that became a tradition of dressing children as sheep, I have no idea, but it seems just right, doesn’t it? Because Christmas is about improbable transformations: the strange idea that the Creator of the world could enter it, that the power that spans the universes could become a helpless child, that we, who can barely manage to keep our own lives on track, could somehow climb through the flesh of that Baby and find there a ladder leading us back to God.
Each one of these marvels is more astonishing than a child in a tinsel halo, harder to believe than the angel’s proclamation of good tidings. But the children show us what faith is like, how we try on the attributes of holiness, playing at them like children until we can live into them for real.
I wonder whether that’s how Jesus felt when he became a child: stretching his hands and touching his toes like any baby, marveling at this flesh he had somehow put on, until he learned how to use it well.
The thing is, he did. And by his grace, so can we.
Thanks be to God, and have a very merry Christmas.