Advent, Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas pageants, Liturgical Drama

Rumors of Joy

(This is a 2-person reading I’ve used on Christmas Eve, originally written as a pageant performed by adults to mark the relationship between a local church I served and a ministry to the homeless. We coordinated the pageant with a blanket drive for the people served by the ministry.)

Carol                         “Once in Royal David’s City,” v. 1-2

Lector: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. (Luke 2:1-3)

Storyteller: It was a cold winter’s afternoon, one of those days when you can hardly believe it could be much darker and still be called daytime.

Lector: Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2:4-5)

Storyteller: Joe and Mary arrived in Portland (or a city close to you) by bus. They were hoping to get to Boston (or the biggest nearby city), but this was as far as the money would take them. Back at home, people knew that Mary was going to have a baby. And they knew the baby wasn’t Joe’s. That was a hard one for Joe. Mary told him some story that no guy could believe, no matter how much he wanted to.

It was a crazy story.

Mary said an angel came to talk to her.

Only a crazy person could believe it!

Maybe Joe was a little crazy in love, then, because he stood by Mary.

Maybe. He knew for sure they needed a place to stay that night, and that’s why they didn’t travel to Boston. He figured they could find a room in Portland, and if they really needed it, he had heard there was a good hospital in town.

So they checked out the cheaper motels. But they were all full. Remember, it was Christmas Eve.

Lector: While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

Carol                         “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” v.1-2

A homeless nativity at Alki United Church of Christ.
A homeless nativity at Alki United Church of Christ.

Storyteller: They were standing outside a motel near the bus station, wondering what to do next, when they heard the wheels of a shopping cart and the jouncing of bottles and cans.

An old lady pushed the cart toward them. She could see that Mary was very, very pregnant, and she offered to help them. She told them about the place where she pitched her tent and offered to let them sleep in it that night.

After all, she said, “It’s Christmas.”

They followed her to a place down by the railroad tracks, where they were surprised to see a lot of people besides themselves seeking shelter on that dark night.

Lector: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)

Storyteller: When they got there, everyone looked a little protective of their stuff. All except one. Her name was Angel.

She had an overstuffed backpack, and as soon as she got a look at Mary, she started taking things out, looking for something important.

At the bottom of the bag, she found it. Someone had come down to the day shelter giving out diapers, and she took them, because you just never know what you might need.

At least that’s what she told Mary.

Lector: Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:9-14)

Carol                         “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Storyteller: Angel looked around the tent city and started telling her friends about Joe and Mary. She remembered the time she had a baby of her own, and she could tell just by looking that Mary didn’t have long to wait.

Angel knew there were things Mary would need on that cold night besides the diapers.

Lector: When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16)

Storyteller: Sure enough, the baby was born that night. The people heard his first cry.

From the edge of the crowd, a man came forward. He was one of those guys whose looks made you want to steer clear, a silent giant with a big dog and a grim expression. He rarely talked to anyone.

He came right over to Mary, and Joe looked worried.

But then the man said gruffly, “Here, take my blanket. I’ll huddle up with my dog tonight.”

Then they had a visit from a man who thought they might need a little something else while taking care of the baby. He was one of those guys who always has an opinion about everything, who always has a lot to say on every subject. Kind of a wise guy.

But on this night, he quietly offered them his lantern. “You may want some light,” he said.

Surrounded by new friends, the little family spent their first night together.

Lector: When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2:17-18)

Carol                                                 “The First Noel,” v. 1-3

Storyteller: When he looked at the baby, Joe was glad he had stood by Mary.

Lector: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Storyteller: Mary said nothing, but her smile told him how joyful her heart felt, even in the dark, cold place where the baby was born.

Lector: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:20)

Storyteller: You may find it hard to believe, but it’s a true story that they all felt warm that night, even the ones who didn’t have blankets.

It’s a true story that the baby’s face shone even before the lantern cast its light.

You may have heard about it.

People may tell you it was only a rumor. But you should always listen to rumors of joy.

Carol                         “Joy to the World”

***Copyright 2006, Rev. Martha K. Spong (this version 2011)

Christmas, Christmas Eve, Sermons

God’s Years Will Never End

(A meditation for Christmas Eve–December 24, 2012–Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14)

Nativity *with* the Doh-Doh this year
Nativity *with* the Doh-Doh this year

A motley nativity decorates our mantelpiece, the figures acquired over fifty years. Some I first saw at my grandmother’s house. The olive wood wise men set out from the left edge with their camels. The shepherds came from the right. Grandma Galli had background artwork, long since lost as she moved to assisted living, then bounced to my parents’ house and finally ended her life in a nursing home.

“We will all wear out like clothing.”

Widowed in her 50s, my grandmother set out to see the world. She was a Laubach Literacy volunteer in Japan, did mission work in India, and visited the Holy Land. She collected more than one nativity set on her travels. When my oldest was a toddler, my mother sent us a soft set, wire figures with fabric faces and actual clothes, the animals not as bendable as my second child’s fondness for them required. The “doh-doh” was his special friend, carried around the house and hidden and rediscovered until finally one leg fell limply from his soft, grey body.

The olive wood figures came to me after my parents died. We set them up each year, Grandma Galli-style: wise men on the left, shepherds on the right, an empty manger at the middle waiting for the baby. We added candles and gazed at the scene by the soft light.

A few years ago I felt wistful for the by now hard-used textile set, and I scrounged through the box looking for pieces I could add. Two shepherd boys; why, they were only a little out of scale! And I could add the lambs, because their dear little legs remained intact.

Somewhere among the Christmas things were other little wooden camels, smaller than the handsome set belonging to my grandmother. If I put them far to the left, maybe they would look like the camel train stretching into the distance. Yes?

And that Italian angel, the only piece of a set an elderly cousin meant to start for us, she could stand by the manger, surely, to worship the baby Jesus.

A dear, faraway friend has what she calls a grotto in her home. It’s full of other people’s leftovers, found in thrift stores and at yard sales. Once while visiting, I looked up and gasped with recognition. A flamboyantly posed and painted Wise Man gazed at me, just like the one in a set my mother had discarded long ago. He came home in my suitcase and joined the eclectic Nativity. It doesn’t matter that his edges are worn and his paint a little faded.

God in His mother's arms
God in His mother’s arms

We will all wear out like clothing, but God’s years will never end.

Fashions change and cultures evolve. Presents everyone wants one year are old-fashioned and eccentric the next, just like a cloak we roll up and put away, or donate to Salvation Army. Material things pass out of fashion.

But eternal things remain the same. God was and is and will be, forever and ever. God – Creator and Christ and Holy Spirit – existed in the beginning, before anything we can see or touch or imagine. God was and is and will be with us, in the midst of our lives just as Jesus was in the world. God was and is and will be found in the old story of angels and a guiding star. God was and is and will be found as a baby in the arms of his mother.

So if that wooden baby Jesus hits the hearth again and the break is beyond the power of Super Glue, I won’t feel I have to replace the whole set. Olive wood Mary can beam just as easily at the leftover textile baby. God was and is and will be, forever and ever. God’s years will never end.

Children's Word, Christmas, Christmas Eve

Go! Tell It!

(A Christmas Eve Story    December 24, 2012          Luke 2:1, 3-16; Matthew 2:1-12)

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

It started with the angels.

They didn’t know everything that would happen. They only knew their own part of the story, their own assignment. They were going out to tell the world about a special baby being born.

One of them had the most important part.

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

The angel learned the words well, and that takes practice.

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

(Hang angel on manger.)

The first people the angels told were shepherds. They were out on the hillside, taking care of the sheep. Brrr! It was cold out there. They huddled up together in the dark, keeping the sheep close for warmth. They could see the stars in the sky, just like every night, but suddenly there was a great light! An angel appeared in the sky. They were very frightened.

Don’t be afraid, said the angel.

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

Then even more angels appeared, singing a song, “Glory to God in the highest heaven! Sing a song and praise God! Sing about peace on earth for all people!”

The shepherds got excited. A savior? Born in little Bethlehem? That wasn’t too far away. They ran into town to see.

(Add shepherd and sheep to the scene.)

Now they believed what the angel said:

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

Because there he was, the baby lying in a manger, wrapped in a little blanket. His mother was watching over him.

(Place baby in manger.)

The shepherds stayed and watched as long as they could. Other people came, too. People were talking in Bethlehem. When the shepherds left, they helped spread the word.

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

From the East, a line of camels and people were traveling. The camels had packs on their backs, full of presents. All the way they followed the light of a special star. It led them to the same baby. The gifts they brought were gold and frankincense and myrrh. It didn’t matter that the baby was poor and they were rich. When they saw him, they knelt down. They believed he was the Savior.

(Place the wise men and camels.)

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

All around the world tonight, we are telling the story again, about the baby Jesus, born in a stable. We are telling the story about the angels who sang to the shepherds. We are telling the story about the shepherds who spread the word. We are telling the story about the wise men and their gifts.

Now it’s our turn to share Jesus with the world, because there are people who have never heard, and people who have forgotten. God sent Jesus to the whole world. He came to save us from being sad and lonely. He came to teach us how to love each other. He came to show us how much God loves everyone.

Go! Tell it!

Good news!

Great joy!

Tonight in Bethlehem the Savior is born.

Books, Christmas

Book #33: A Christmas Carol

A-christmas-carol I had a great time over the weekend reading Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" on my Kindle. We have a big hardcover version, but it's a coffee table type of thing (with annotations and pictures from the George C. Scott TV production some years ago), and I really wanted to focus on the text. Like so many classics, it was a great deal on Kindle, 99 cents. 

My boys and I were in the play at Portland Stage Company some years ago (1997-99 for #1 Son, 1998-9 and 2000 or 2001 for Snowman, 1998 for me), so it holds many dear and special memories. The production used as much of the text as possible, and I heard in my reading the voices of the actors from 1998, the year Snowman played Tiny Tim. Both boys had a turn as the young Scrooge, singing "The Holly and the Ivy," and #1 Son got to be Peter Cratchit just before aging out entirely. 

The particular beauty of that production was the score, composed by an Englishman and making use of many, many carols we might consider obscure in America. For the first few years, the composer himself sat in a back corner of the stage playing the music. I heard the next music director, in a later year, joking about the specificity of the directions in the score, but that score held magic, Christmas magic.

My favorite memory: being asked to "play" the sleigh bells during the journey with the Ghost of Christmas past. I stood in the music corner, curtained off from the audience but able to see the action on stage, following my cues to ring the bells. In that corner were tiny keyboards and a thunder sheet and every kind of percussion needed to supplement the piano and add texture to the production. 

It's possible I had a little crush on the composer/arranger/pianist. In the end, we went out together a few times after Christmas, before that theatrical vagabond moved on to his next gig. But it would have been magical even without a little romance sprinkled on top.

Mostly, I'm glad to have started *and* finished a book at the end of this year of distracted reading.

Christmas, Sermons

The Day After

Flight into Egypt (It's a wee sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, using Isaiah 63:7-9 and Matthew 2:13-23 and "Good King Wenceslas and even a little snippet from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.")

It's the day after Christmas. 

And it's the year when we read one of the worst Bible stories ever, the one in which Mary and Joseph escape with Baby Jesus thanks to an intervening angel, while all the other little babies in Bethlehem and its environs are mercilessly killed. It's an appalling story, and I hope it will cheer you to know that there are no historical records suggesting it actually happened. I believe it's one of those literary creations designed to set up the rest of the story, to foretell that the authorities will be after Jesus for the rest of his life, and that those authorities don't seem to care about the little ones.

It's the day after, and Mary and Joseph and Jesus are safely in Egypt, to fulfill one more piece of prophecy. But it's not a scene we act out with our nativity figures, is it?

At our house, where there are no more little ones, oceans of wrapping paper are a mere memory. We clean up after ourselves because we all know it feels better that way. Oh, there are little piles of stocking presents or Christmas books left in the living room. Mine are on the end table; the coffee table holds a few. Someone always has a stack near the hearth. The stockings are re-hung by the chimney with care, a remembrance of days past, when mine was labeled "Mommy." 

On the dining room table this morning I found the pretty crystal goblets we used at Christmas dinner. I like to save them to handwash the day after. They sparkle with memories of the night before.

It's the day after Christmas, the First Sunday After Christmas Day. For people who celebrate saints and their feast days, this is St. Stephen's Day. For people in countries under the influence of English traditions, today is Boxing Day. Some people thing Boxing Day means the day you return the presents you don't really want! But really it means the day the church "poor boxes" were opened, and all the contributions that had come in through the year, and especially through the Christmas season, were counted up and then distributed to those in need.

This year, instead of having a Poinsettia Tree, our Flower Committee invited us to donate to the Cumberland Food Pantry. The stars hanging in front of the choir loft represent our gifts, and you have a list of those who donated to the cause. In case you didn't hear the news on Christmas Eve, we raised $955 for the Food Pantry. This is just one equivalent of the poor box, a way of carrying Christmas beyond the hustle and bustle of yesterday, over to the day after and the week after and into the New Year. 

We heard a snippet from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, part of the journey Ebenezer Scrooge took with the Ghost of Christmas present. Scrooge saw many examples of the ways people treated each other with kindness because their hearts felt the warmth of Christmas. Frightened by the future that laid ahead if he remained cold and selfish, the old man would – I hope this isn’t a spoiler! – come to behave generously himself. More than that, he would come to *feel* generous. The Charity Gentleman who came to him seeking donations the day before, a gentleman Scrooge rejected ferociously, gets a shock at the end when Scrooge whispers to him a large amount he wants to give to help the poor. “A great many back-payments are included in it,” says Scrooge.

Our Christmas Eve offerings included money given to our Deacons' Fund, through which we help people in the local community and in our own church with food and fuel assistance. In the early church, Stephen, whose Saint's Day this is, was one of the first deacons. Deacons were the people who were called on by the early church to make sure the poor and marginalized in the community were cared for, given food and clothes. They were the first people to do the work Jesus calls us all to do. 

Stephen went on to be a preacher who brought the message of Jesus to many, many people. He was one of the first martyrs to our faith, stoned to death by people who found the message of Jesus threatening to their way of living.

It's the day after Christmas, a good time to reflect on what we're asked to do and be.

Wenceslas I first learned about Good King Wenceslas when I was a little girl growing up in Virginia. The girls' school I attended had a *huge* carol service every December. Girls from grades 4 through 12 sang carols from around the world, tunes still lively in my heart and mind, mostly sung in their original languages. "De Beau Matin, je rencontre le train, les trois Grand Rois qui partaient en voyage, " we sang in French, and "Un flambeau, Jeanette Isabelle." The older girls sang in Spanish and in German and in Latin.

In the fifth grade, I had the chance to sing a little solo line in the carol #1 Son and LP shared with you a few minutes ago, and thus I learned to love King Wenceslas. The real Wenceslas was probably called Vaclav. He was the Duke of Bohemia more than a thousand years ago. He was known to be a kind and generous man, raised up in the Christian faith by his grandmother, St. Ludmila. He believed that faith was more than how you feel about God; he believed that faith meant acting on God's behalf for the good of the world. He, too, would be killed simply because he was such a good and faithful person, murdered by his own brother.

The hymn writer, John Mason Neale, chose Wenceslas as the subject when he wanted to write a carol for children in the 1800's. He hoped to tell a story explaining to children that generosity is more than doing what comes easily. If you have ever been out in the cold, especially when your destination is unclear and the visibility is poor, you can identify with the page who sings, "Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer."

On the day after Christmas, the servant called out to his master, just as we call out to God when we don't know how to keep going. Wenceslas encourages him, telling him to step into the footprints his master has already made.  But he has done more than break a path. It's the miracle that makes him a saint. "Heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed." His feet warmed the earth, and warmed the young page, giving him the strength he needed to continue.

The prophet Isaiah wrote:

It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9, NRSV)

How do we find our way in the storms of life?  Follow in the footprints of the Master, Jesus, the One who came to warm the Earth with God's love. How do we live his love? Break open like the poor boxes, and be spilled out to do God's work in the world. How do we keep the Spirit of the season? Resist the urge to pack Jesus away with the nativity figures and the Christmas ornaments. It’s the day after, and Christmas is just beginning. Amen.


P.S. No claims being made about my French carol memories…especially the spelling.

Flight into Egypt can be found here.

Christmas, Mothering

The Stockings Were Hung

Stockings hung with care My mother excelled at Christmas stockings. She made our charming red, felt Christmas stockings, decorated to a fare-thee-well with our names sparkling down the leg. She had a knack for finding the right little thoughtful things and making them fit into the stocking in the most interesting way.

When I began to have children, she embellished the rather plain stockings I first hung for them.

Accordingly, I have spent many years putting pressure on myself to do the same thing. I wrapped all the tiny little presents in white tissue paper and tied the packages with ribbons color-coordinated to each stocking.

It's what mothers do to show their love, right?

Well, no.

It's what *my* mother did to show her love. 

And because her words of love and affirmation were so few and far between, I relied on the Christmas stocking as proof that she really cared.

This also means I've put pressure on people in my adult life to make the stocking happen, as if that were the only way to show love. This year I told my children, "We're going to keep Christmas low-key. Let's just do little things that go in the stockings."

Well, heck.

I managed to put the pressure on all of us to excel at the one thing that someone who has been gone since 1993, I kid you not, would have done so beautifully, a person who has been gone so long that the last time she filled a stocking for me or for my boys was 1992, a person who never, ever knew my daughter or filled a stocking for her. 

In other words, no one else even knows what I mean. I'm creating an unmeetable expectation.

Today LP expressed concern that she hadn't gotten me enough presents. She is worried about my stocking not having enough.

Dear Baby Jesus, please make it stop. Please make me stop. In this family we express our actual feelings with words. All I really want for Christmas (besides that awesome, mind-blowing, life-altering trip to the Boston Pops) is to worship tonight and to have my three children at the dinner table together tomorrow. 

Next year, I promise, I will set no gift-giving guidelines.

My stocking is already full, as full as my heart.

Children, Christmas

Sleigh Ride

Pops 002 Just hear those sleigh bells jingling,ring ting tingling, too.

Come on, it's lovely weatherfor a sleigh ride together with you.

Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling "yoo hoo."

Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

Yesterday I went to Beantown to get my Christmas present from Snowman. He made me the happiest Mama Bird ever by taking me to the Boston Pops Holiday Concert!!!

And yes, that was our actual view. I asked if he had to make someone disappear to get us these seats. He was curiously silent on the subject.

Our cheeks are nice and rosy and comfy cozy are we.

We're snuggled up together like two birds of a feather would be.

Let's take that road before us and sing a chorus or two.

Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

The weather in the real world was snowy, as it turned out, so I came up out of the T to a Winter Wonderland. I was as happy as a little girl, really, when we met at Snowman's dorm. Going to the Boston Pops is literally a lifelong dream for me. My parents loved watching the Pops, and I have clear memories of the Arthur Fiedler, Evening at Pops era. 

There's a birthday partyat the home of Farmer Gray

It'll be the perfect ending a of perfect day

We'll be singing the songswe love to sing without a single stop

At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop. pop! pop! pop!

It's absolutely the truth that if they had played nothing but "Sleigh Ride" for two hours, I would have been completely delighted.

Here's me, happy at Symphony Hall.

Pops 005 There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy

When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie

It'll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives

These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives!

And I will remember this.

Conductor Keith Lockhart told us the story of "Sleigh Ride," composed specially for the Pops. "Accept no subtitutes," he told us after we cheered the orchestra until the trumpets rose triumphant for their bow.

From the opening measures to the trumpet whinny, with stops along the way for wood blocks hooves and whip cracks, I smiled so broadly my face almost hurt. 

And in this year when I wondered where my Christmas spirit would come from, Snowman and the Boston Pops made an express delivery.

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too

Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you

Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling "yoo hoo,"

Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

Pops 012