Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

A post from '09. Merry Christmas to all.


Sometimes God chooses unlikely routes of communication.

That's what we talked about Monday night at The Open Door, a homeless shelter for women. How the people called by God aren't always obvious choices (see John the Baptist) and the ways chosen by God don't make immediate sense (see Mary: young, single and not wealthy, carrying the Savior of the world in her womb).

John the Baptist was sent to "prepare the way of the Lord," as we heard in a reading. Mary was the way the Lord had chosen, as we saw in a sketch by my friend John Cosper. But why? Why do this? Why should God put on flesh and be born of a woman?

I cast parts for "The Incarnation" from Cloth for the Cradle, and told everyone we'd read the script through once, tune it up, then perform it for ourselves at the end of the night.

We read. We discussed the meaning. I gathered the two narrators and God, and asked them to pick up the pace.

"I thought I was doing a good job of that," said Evelyn, who prides herself--rightly so--on her excellent reading abilities.

"You were," I told her, "but what feels fast to you will be just the right energy for the audience. At the end, though, don't rush it, Keesha. Linger a little with that last image. Pat: Don't overplay God's emotions or they'll turn comic. Mimes: Exaggerate both your actions and your frozen poses. Don't draw attention to yourself when important things are going on upstage, but at the end, take the spotlight." Everyone nodded in agreement.

Though I mostly run exercises with the women, I'm always looking for ways to throw in terminology and teach actual theatre conventions. I held up the long piece of gold lame I had used as a prop during the read-through, grabbed from under my Christmas tree earlier that evening.

"Did you see how the cloth became a symbol of God's attempts at communicating with us--the rainbow, the manna, the Red Sea? And how it turned into the primary form of communication, when I folded it into the form of a swaddled baby?"

The symbolism is important, I pointed out. Right about then, Evelyn starts toward me.

Evelyn has a bottle-blonde crewcut and wears two quilted jackets she never takes off. The pockets--two on each--bulge with her belongings.

"Here," she says, handing me a small, ratty teddy bear with a ribbon on its neck, the kind you wrap around gifts and use a pair of scissors to curl. I'm confused for a moment, thinking she's thanking me with a gift; I don't know Evelyn well, and though she's aggressively good-natured, I see hints that I could send her reeling with a single look. I want to be sure about this teddy.

"The baby," she says. Oh dear, I think, she wants Teddy to be Baby Jesus. Someone within hearing distance yells a nay to that idea, but Evelyn insists. I start to catch on--she thinks it will add substance to the cloth, make it look like there's a real baby inside.

"Like this? Is it okay that the bear isn't visible?" It is. Evelyn is happy with the final product.

I stuff Teddy into the left pocket of my hoodie, shove the cloth under my arm, and hold the script with the other hand. Carly, one of the mimes, has a moment of stage fright, but she agrees to go on. We're ready for the show.

"The Incarnation," I announce.

"Is this where I'm supposed to stand?" Keesha asks.

"Yes. The Incarnation, Take Two. Wait a minute," I say, "One last thing. If you stumble over your words or movements--which you might, seeing that you've only read it once before--carry on. Don't draw attention to yourself or giggle and make jokes--just pick up and carry on. Doesn't matter that we're our own audience. It's a lesson for the stage but it's also a life lesson, right?"

Amen, they say.

"The Incarnation, Take Three."

"God looked around and saw the world which he had made a long time ago, and what he saw upset him," read Keesha, nice and clear.

"In one place, preachers were talking about peace, priests were talking about peace, prophets were talking about peace. So much talking, but there was no peace. There was only talking to hide the noises of war." The mimes concluded their preaching and held their pose.

"In another place," read Evelyn, "People were building; building banks and warehouses, building monuments to their own greed..." A mighty orator now, Evelyn was catching her stride. "So much building, while the poor became poorer, and the scales of justice were biased to the rich." The mimes put down their hammers, and Pat--God--sighed on cue.

On through the sketch they went, solidly. God tried various means to communicate with his people, but to no avail. Finally, God said, "I'll send...I'll send...I'll go there myself."

I turned toward the lockers, pulled Teddy from my pocket, and wrapped him safe and sound in luminous gold.

Symbolism is important, yes; but sometimes the meaning isn't quite obvious, or doesn't make immediate sense.

And sometimes there are so many layers you keep finding one after the other, like a present inside a present inside a present.

"So the Word became flesh, tiny and frail flesh," Keesha proclaimed reverently, with care. God carried the golden gift to Mary and Joseph. Pat outstretched her hands to complete the final image, an unlikely symbol of God making contact, a nativity for those with no place to lay their heads.

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