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Thursday, December 24, 2015

My First and Last Christmas Play

I really don’t care for Christmas plays.

Choral programs are tolerable because they at least have Christmas carols, and no matter how often those things get recycled you can’t begrudge people all their traditions. Anyway, some of those carols are quite nice.

But the plays! How many times must I witness people flouncing around in bathrobes, talking like no one in 1st century Israel ever did? How many rickety mangers occupied by plastic baby dolls must one endure? In some places they even parade up some recent mother from the congregation, towing along her screaming newborn, and the old ladies in the front row melt. Then there’s the angelic choir of five teenagers wrapped in shower curtains and crowned with coat-hanger haloes …

To employ the appropriate phrase, “Oy vey”.

But my mother always told me — no, that’s not true, Mom wasn’t so doctrinaire; it was other people. As other people always told me, “Don’t criticize if you can’t do better”.

Maybe I can’t. But unless I want to turn in my critic’s license perhaps I’ll have to ante up and write a play of my own.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Getting Control of the Material

So I still haven’t worked out the first bit: you know, the journey to Bethlehem, the inn, the stable … all that. I came in at the bit with the angel. That seems to have some good dramatic possibilities. After all, angels are notoriously intimidating. Anyway, Luke says this one doesn’t show up alone, but brings the whole glory of God with him.

Hmmm … I’m going to have to up the budget for special effects and lighting. Maybe I should call Spielberg. On second thought, maybe I’d better call everybody. This is going to be a major challenge to stage.

Scripting It

Alright, I’m going to have to solve that later. Maybe I can just work on the script for now. So the angel appears, and he says, “Do not fear”.

How should he say that? I’d better check my Bible.

Oh. The “do not fear” there is a command. And it literally says, “they feared a great fear”. Yeah, I’ll bet. When angels show up, people fall on their faces and are overwhelmingly inclined to worship. It’s got to be a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

Historians of the period say shepherds weren’t exactly the most respectable folk: sort of the trailer trash of Israel, the lowest of the low. Whatever the case, I’ll bet their lives were pretty tough. Maybe they hadn’t even been the best people themselves — how good would they be likely to be? How good do we expect any of the poorest of the poor to be? And these guys aren’t elite scholars or temple servants; they’re not even middle-class merchants or craftsmen. They tend sheep for a living. Boring, dirty, stupid sheep. All day, and all night. When those are your prospects, what kind of a person do you become? Probably not a saint.

Well, anyway, on with the script. The angel tells them not to fear, and then says he’s bringing good news. Well, literally he says, “I evangelize to you a great joy”. Hmm. I see. Not a fear, but a joy. Got the parallelism. Well, what’s the joy?
“… because born to you, this day, is a Savior.”
Oh, I see: the “to you” is the emphatic bit. It’s good news for all people, but it’s even better news to you. It may be true that there are holier men in the city nearby. It’s certainly true that you’re just a bunch of lowly shepherds without a hope of becoming one of them. It doesn’t matter. It’s “to you” that this Savior-child is born.

What’s with all the “to you” stuff? Why is that repeated and emphasized?

Oh, wait a minute. They were just dirty shepherds. Yeah.

The Dialogue

Okay, now I can imagine one of them saying, “Um … to us? You sure you aren’t going to hurt us even a little? I mean, we can see the difference between you guys and us, and the comparison isn’t pretty. And even the religious people of the nearby city look down on us. Is there just a chance you don’t mean us?”

Now I get it: they don’t ask for it, but what they need is a sign. I can imagine them muttering to one another:

Shepherd 1: Now, what would fit the bill?

Shepherd 2: Okay: suppose a baby was born in the palace … that would be logical. Or maybe if He was born in a rich household. No, wait ... those things happen all the time.

Shepherd 1: Um … suppose His birth was attended with spontaneous miracles … explosions … mass healings … the overthrow of the Roman Empire …

Shepherd 2: No, no. That would show that Messiah had come, perhaps, but all of us are expecting that. [To the head angel] Messiah will come, we know: but that still doesn’t show that you’re not here to smite us good …

[Pause. They cough and shuffle their feet in the dirt.]

Shepherd 1: Well, to tell you the truth, the part we’re having trouble with is not the birth of Messiah … it’s … that … well, that He would want anything to do with us …

[The angel smiles.]

Head Angel: This will be a sign to you. You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Shepherd 1: What?

Shepherd 2: You mean swaddling clothes … just like every baby?

Shepherd 1: No, wait … wait. Did you say a manger? You mean one of those things that animals eat out of? You didn’t say “manger”, did you?

Shepherd 2: [hesitantly] Well … that would be a sign. After all, if Messiah were in a manger … then surely …

Shepherd 1: Yes, I see … then surely if God put Messiah in a manger we’d know He was a gift for us. After all, nobody in the city is even going to bat an eye if we go there …


Okay, I give up.

I’m not a great scriptwriter, I have to admit. My script is probably just as bad as anyone else’s. Maybe it isn’t so easy to write a Christmas play. Maybe I’m going to give up criticizing and make a point instead:

“To you”.

To you, this day … a Saviour”.

You may not think so. You may look around at the world and suppose that God doesn’t really take much interest in its condition. Worse, you may look back on your own life without much pride. If we’re honest, as we look back on our lives sometimes it seems we come into this world, we make an ungodly mess of a bunch of things, and then we die. We hurt other people: sometimes unintentionally, but also not so unintentionally. We speak rashly, and we do that very often. We manipulate. We slack off. We take more than our share. We jockey for position or prestige. We get angry and resentful. We do bitter things. We turn a deaf ear to the needy, and we turn down dozens of opportunities to show mercy for every one we happen to take. And we always make more of ourselves than we really warrant.

As we get older, the disappointments in ourselves mount. Youthful hopes, so pure as they seemed at the start, get sold out for second-rate solutions. Our bodies begin to decline then decay. And at the end we may have little more than a long chain of regrets. And if we’re honest, at some point we all become a disappointment to ourselves.

That God would send His son to save the worthy, the lovely, the privileged and the pure, maybe we have no problem believing. Our problem is when we look at ourselves honestly, and wonder how it is possible for God to so love a sinner like me.

How, how could we ever know that He did?

Well, let me ask you this: are you good enough to go to an animal food-trough in a stable? Could you do that? Because if you could, then you could find Messiah. He went there because you could go there. And later, He went to a cross so that you would know that the righteous wrath of a holy God had indeed fallen — but not on you.

The Big Closing Number

After this, the holy army of God shows up with at announcing angel. All the special effects and CGI in the world are not going to give us any idea of what that must have looked like. But this army hasn’t come to fight — not now, anyway — it’s come to proclaim peace. “Glory to God in the highest places, and upon Earth, peace ...”

To you, this day … a Savior. Sealed with a sign: peace.

The reality that God wants to make peace with you is not certified by the worthiness of your life or the adequacy of your person; it is certified by a manger.


  1. After having blogged here for a while and therefore having honed my intellectual skills I was finally able to figure out what the real reason was why God created woman. It's of course so that his son could have a proper birthday celebration at Christmas time. Most men, at least this one, do not have this fathomless capacity for organizing and orchestrating a proper Christmas birthday event for the family and/or friends. Most men probably cannot tell why it would make a difference (or would care) to use Ricotta with a percentage made from skim milk vs. straight Ricotta when preparing manicotti. For many men, at least my age, it would be enough to own a small artificial tabletop Christmas tree that you decorate once and then put under wraps in the basement until next year. A second purpose is of course that that unbound wifely energy for celebrating Christ's birthday will keep you on your toes and engaged no matter how strong or lacking your enthusiasm. So, regardless of where you may fit in, here is a Happy and Merry Christmas to all.

    1. And a very merry Christmas to you, Q. Save me some of that manicotti?

  2. Would love to IC. But, at this point I would have to FedEx it to you. Not sure you would appreciate that. If you are ever in the area though (near Poughkeepsie, NY), let me know.

  3. Oops, got to keep better tabs on who is writing what. I could FedEx manicotti to both of you, of course :-).

    1. That's alright Q, we're pretty interchangeable -- in some respects anyway: I'm pretty sure IC would happily scarf your manicotti any time.