Here Anything To Sing About?
It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, but it might also be called "Christmas Pageant Sunday." It is not true in every place, but often this is the Sunday when children of the parish present the Christmas story, playing all the characters from Mary and Joseph to the angels (and sometimes, even playing the donkeys and sheep!). Some of the children have memorized two-line poems, and parents are prepared to coach them from the congregation in case of stage fright. My first Christmas pageants were at Zion Lutheran in Gowrie, Iowa. I can still remember the first lines I ever memorized: "My heart shall be my manger, my body be thy stall..." But hard as I try, I can never remember the end of that poem. Perhaps, I forgot it years ago and have blocked the lines ever since.
Years after those lines, when I was fully grown, I was part of another pageant. I had just graduated from seminary and was serving as an intern in a congregation. There was a tradition in that parish for the Lutheran Church Women to act out the Christmas story at their December meeting. They asked me to play my guitar as background music. I must admit to you, I approached the whole event with a skeptical smile, for I had seen many pageants in my day. I had seen shepherds tugging at their bathrobes, which were always too big. I had watched them trip their way from the hillside in the church balcony. I had giggled as crowns fell off wise men and angels popped up at the wrong time from behind the pulpit. But those were children's pageants: Such mistakes were always excused by saying, "Aren't the little ones cute!"
But how would I excuse these grown women if they tripped on bathrobes too big on their way to Bethlehem? I told myself to be open-minded, and took my place at the back of the basement social hall. The lights clicked off one by one, and I began to play. Barbara, do not laugh, I told myself, just keep playing. The three wise women made it through their reading by candlelight; we could barely see one of them, but luckily, we knew the story pretty well. The shepherds wore their own bathrobes so all went smoothly as a they made their way from the back. I kept playing. Only Mary and Joseph were left now on stage, in the corner, near the piano.
Now, it was also a tradition in that parish to allow one man to be part of this pageant. Jimmie Hall, age 72, played Joseph. His wife, Inez, played Mary. Jimmie came to all the meetings anyway, since his wife was president. He carried all the heavy bags, helped set up tables, and kept everyone laughing with his stories and crazy poems. Tonight, Jimmie didn't have any lines.
I kept playing as the shepherds returned to their seats. Someone banged into a folding chair in the darkness, causing a bit of laughter near the manger. Then, out of the darkness, a spotlight came on. Only then, did I really look up. Without a cue, I stopped playing. I don't know why for sure...I can't remember now why it had been so dark before and why the spotlight only came on then. All I know is this: I looked up and I stopped playing. It didn't occur to me to laugh. Mary and Joseph stood silently, not the youngsters of my childhood, but two very old black people, far too old to have a baby. Gently, serenely, they cradled their beautiful black child. Jimmie looked proud as any first-time papa...Jimmie who had stayed alive during the Depression by eating at Father Divine's soup kitchen in Harlem. Inez who could never bear children had a baby of her own that night.
Then in the silence, I heard music (even though no one was singing). I heard Mary's song inside my head--the song of pregnancy, now sung at the time of birth: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." I heard Jimmie and Inez singing the song with aged Elizabeth and young Mary singing along with them: "For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; For God who is mighty has done great things for me..." And even the women in the church basement were singing and the silent guitar player joined in: "God has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree."
In that moment, Jimmie and Inez stood in the light as the people of the promise. The baby was their baby and God's baby. What I had predicated, in my sophisticated seminary imagination to be a silly scene, had instead become sublime. In that moment, an elderly couple who had never had children, knew the baby could have been their own...they knew Jesus could indeed be the black baby cradled in Inez's own arms. And the cinder blocks of the basement walls echoed Mary's song. It lasted only a minute, maybe two. But I still hear the music, and I still see them standing in the light.
Perhaps it must be that ordinary. A church basement with folding chairs. A scene we fear might be laughable. Mary's song must catch us off guard. Interrupting our sophisticated smiles. She is the young woman in line ahead of us in the supermarket, far too young to be the mother of the child playing in the grocery cart. Or as old as Elizabeth or Hannah, Jimmie or Inez--too old to expect any more surprises.
God chooses such unlikely scenes for the incarnation of glory. God chooses people, needs people. Though we imagine God to be self-sufficient, God needed Mary. I believe God needed Jimmie and Inez to open my skeptical eyes. Somehow, the One who created heaven and earth, who breathed life into dormant clay, this God needed a human being to bring the Word to earth. It was not only God saying, "Mary I will bless you," but "Mary I need you." I need you to bear my Word in your womb. I will wait with you nine months for my Word to take on flesh. And when Mary heard that word, through her laughter and her fear, she knew the name Immanuel meant not only "God-with-us" but God-with-me. It was then, she sang. She sang as people finally sing when they hear the Word: God-with-me. She sang a world turned upside down--for such revelation changes everything. Even in the midst of evidence to the contrary, Mary sang a song of God's victory. Even with Rome still in charge, with Caesar Augustus still on the throne, with the census coming up and too little money for travel. Even knowing all that, Mary sang.
You may think Mary naive to sing such a revolutionary song when little around her was changing. But Mary's song would not wait until Caesar was removed. For Mary, it was enough to know that she had been chosen and blessed--not the emperor's wife! Not a woman of great renown; not the mighty but the lowly. God needed her to bring the Kingdom close at hand. God trusted the ordinary, the common to bring forth the incarnate Word. For Mary, that was reason enough to sing! Enough evidence that God's reign was not to be known in powerful kings or wealthy landowners. And if some claimed such things as signs of God's favor, she knew better from that day forward.
Mary knew better. Just as, centuries later, slaves in America heard God's word and refused to believe any longer that God had ordained their masters to rule over them forever. It was not the way things were supposed to be. They began to sing, "Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn," long before Pharaoh's army was drowned! They sang, in spite of the evidence believing in their hearts that God had called them to help bring in a new day. God needed them to bring the fullness of the Word to the soil on which they stood.
Still later, on a cold December night, the son and daughter of former slaves stood in the spotlight in a church basement. They stood right there and had a baby. They knew the baby was God's gift, and they dared to claim God's blessing on their ordinary lives. They believed the Word had come, a child of their own dark flesh.
Jimmie died five summers ago. I saw him in my memory as I sat at the funeral. We were back in the basement again; it was Christmas. The manger and the casket mingled together like a double-exposed photograph. The aged man had seen the child. And into the summer silence came another song: "Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people..."
They were the words of Simeon's song, the old man who saw the infant Jesus in the temple. But it could also be a refrain for Mary's song. The young, pregnant woman. The old man. Both had seen the salvation of God. Both knew it was joined to their own flesh. God needed them to bear the Word. But they hadn't known that until God gave them the song. Once they knew, once they heard the blessing, they laughed and cried and sang their hearts out. Then the stained glass windows picked up the refrain and echoed over the casket. And the seminarian, now a bit older, joined in the chorus: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." For my own eyes had seen God's salvation. I hope it is true also for you.
Barbara K. Lundblad (The Protestant Hour--The Lutheran Series)