The Sinners’ Christmas Pageant

The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Guilty

Jason Micheli / 12.13.22

In his Small Catechism the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther gives instructions for preachers and teachers of the gospel. He writes:

Whatever is presented to us in words must be reduced to pictures, for without a picture we can neither think nor understand anything. That is how Christ everywhere in the Gospel carries out his ministry. He taught people the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven by means of pictures and parables.

In other words, if God gives himself to us in a promise, then that particular promise gets into us more deeply through stories. Fortunately, when you spend your workaday life with the folks Jesus has the poor taste to call friends, stories are not hard to discover.

Because sin is original to us all and because, as Robert Capon notes, the Father has already sown the Son in all the world, ministry — whether it’s the professional, pensioned sort or the harder, unpaid kind — is a like an unceasing, four-season harvest of grace.

For example — and their names have been changed to protect the guilty:

A long time ago, in a county far far away at an unsuspecting church in the Blue Ridge mountains upon which the bishop foisted me, we staged a Christmas pageant during the season of Advent. During dress rehearsal that final Sunday morning, before the performance, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host.

When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first-grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano. The sound of Katie’s wretch was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds — both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men — started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger. Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son upside the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing NASCAR tickets this year if you can’t hold your shit together.”

Truth be told, the little church had neither the numbers nor the talent to man a lemonade stand, much less mount a production of the Christmas story. Nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant. And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better — and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman who was always compulsively clad in red holiday sweaters — I said yes.

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: “Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo. Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings as though he were wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. Because, of course, he was wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, be it haste, laziness, or a dare involving some sum of cash, the mother-in-charge of the pageant had made the magi responsible for their own costumes, thus resulting in what looked more like a Halloween pageant than a Christmas one. One wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the former WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik. And the third wise man wore a gray and green Philadelphia Eagles bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy. At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white fur-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, King Herod looked more like Cosmo Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

When it came time for the performance, I sat down and King Herod handed me a program. On the cover was the title, “The Gift of Christmas.” On the inside was a list of cast members’s names and their roles. As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me.

His name was Mike.
He was an insurance auditor.
He had salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.
He led a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings that met at the diner.
He delivered Meals on Wheels.
He chaired the church council.
He supervised the coat closet.
He mentored kids caught in the juvenile justice system.
He was the little church’s most generous donor.
And he was more than a little officious in his righteousness.

Mike never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: “Mary played by … Elizabeth played by … Magi #1 played by …” His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt, “Of all the nerve …”

I knew immediately what he was implying, or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin. There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman named Pam — a grown woman who was married to Roger, a man more than twice her age.

She’d married Roger only after splitting up his previous marriage. The Holy Mother of God was being portrayed by a home-wrecker. Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business to fund his gambling habit. Another wise man was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played by a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

The man playing the role of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and the father of Jesus’s cousin John, owned a construction company and had been accused of and charged for fraud by several customers in town, including a couple in the congregation. He’d bilked them out of thousands and thousands of dollars.

Zechariah — his name was Bill — every first Sunday of the month, Bill began to cry, tears streaming down his sunburnt carpenter’s cheeks, whenever I placed a piece of bread in his rough, calloused hands and promised him, “This is the Body of Christ broken for you.”

Maybe more than anyone in that little church, he depended on the promise that when Christ says “This is my Body broken for you,” the “you” means me, too.

“There’s no conditions,” I’d told him once after the you-know-what with his business hit the fan. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. For all of us, that you means me. The forgiveness — it’s for you. You’ve got to take Christ at his absolving word or you’re calling God a liar, which is a lot worse of a sin than any you’ve committed. The truth about you is never what you see in the mirror — good or bad — the truth about you is always found in the broken piece of bread placed in your hand. You’re no different than anyone else here.”

Mike, the insurance auditor, held the program in his hands and read the cast members’s names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear, “Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them? Who chose her to play Mary?!”

And he gestured with his rolled up program at Roger’s trophy wife.

“It’s like Martin Luther said,” I said, “The Church is a whore but she’s my mother.” He stared at me waiting for an answer, and, because I’m not a brave man (and because I didn’t much like her), I pointed at the mother-in-charge.

“She did. The one in the reindeer sweater. She cast them all. Blame her.” He shook his head in disgust and then he gestured again towards Pam/Mary, and he said: “It’s one thing for her to even show her face here Sunday after Sunday but … this?! Do you really think she’s the sort of person who should be starring in this story for our church and our community? What in the hell have you been preaching to her, pastor? Go and sin some more?!”

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary. She hadn’t had the energy for any of the rehearsals. She just showed up at the worship service when it was time to perform the pageant pushing a walker, from which hung a black and green oxygen tank.

Betty was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe-cleaner halos around their heads.

Emphysema was killing Betty a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Betty’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family. About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his makeshift throne, looking more like Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver than King Herod, Betty struggled up to the pulpit.

With the walker resting next to the pulpit, the tube to her oxygen was pulled almost taut. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone.

With her hands bruised from blood thinner, she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew. (I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but again I was terrified of the mother-in-charge.)

The cadence of Betty’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air: “She shall bear a son … (breath) … and you are to name him Jesus … (breath) … for he will save people from their sins … (breath) …”

Except — that morning Betty didn’t start by narrating the Christmas story. She went off script.

I don’t know if she went off script because she hadn’t been at the rehearsals or if in her old age she was confused and rambling, or maybe she was just filling time while she tried to locate her spot in the script. I like to think she’d heard the scuttlebutt about Mike and his righteous indignation over the likes of Pam starring as the Lord’s highly favored one. She began by introducing the passage.

“The Bible tells us about God being born as Jesus,” Betty said, “only after a long list of begats.”

And she took a breath from her oxygen mask.

“Emmanuel … God-with-us … (breath) comes from a family tree every bit as knotted as ours (breath) a family of scoundrels and unbelievers (breath) rapists and hookers (breath) cheats and those consumed by their resentment over being cheated upon (breath) all the way back to Abraham (breath) who wasn’t righteous (breath) but was reckoned so on the only basis any of us are so counted, faith, alone (breath). Christ comes from a family just like us,” she said and took a breath. “He comes from sinners for sinners.”

I looked over at Mike, who’d been standing in the narthex passing out programs. In addition to everything else, Mike was the head usher too. When the pageant began, Mike’s ears had been beat red and the vein in his forehead throbbing so outraged and incredulous was he that we were “telling the story of our savior with those kinds of people,” but, hearing that tiny little women with her Gospel promise, he suddenly hung his head. He looked embarrassed, as though, God the Holy Spirit had just smacked him upside the head. Humility is only ever something we discover because humility is something done to us.

Katie in the heavenly host nearly made it through the Christmas pageant in the clear, but when the wise men showed up delivering their gift-wrapped boxes she ran to the trash can in the choir loft to deliver into it the last of her breakfast.

Betty the narrator never made it to the next Christmas. She died that spring clutching the same promise she’d preached to us that Sunday in Advent.

Zechariah left the church shortly after I did, and he became a preacher in a storefront start-up church. Every Sunday he preached the promise “that whether we mend our ways or not, when it comes to us, God never mends his ways. No matter what, God will deal with you tomorrow exactly as God dealt with you yesterday, by grace.” Turns out, the scoundrel was a good preacher too.

Only those who know they’re not good realize that the promise is too good not to believe.

After the worship service that Sunday in Advent finished, I stood outside near the front door to the sanctuary, shaking hands as the bell rang and the organ groaned out the last notes of the postlude. Mike was one of the last to leave.

In addition to everything else, he always cleaned up the pews after worship and vacuumed up the communion crumbs from the floor. His hand felt hot and sweaty in the December air, like he’d been wringing his hands in consternation. “We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but I guess that doesn’t stop us from comparing our landing spots does it?”

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COMMENTS


7 responses to “The Sinners’ Christmas Pageant”

  1. Hugh says:

    This made me laugh and then pause and think about the gospel of grace. That gives me hope for myself and others. Then that made me smile. Here is another quote from Luther “We are all beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.” Maybe we shouldn’t judge other peoples landing spots. Because everyone falls short if not for grace.

  2. Scott Benhase says:

    Jason this is brilliant! In my first church as a curate the Rector, because he didn’t like me, put me in charge of the Christmas pageant. I made the mistake (the first of many) of casting a brother-sister duo as Mary & Joseph. While they were processing down the center aisle as the pageant began, “Joseph” must’ve said something untoward at “Mary” and she turned around and began beating him over the head with the doll playing the role of baby Jesus. That boy got as much Jesus as he could handle that night. It’s all grace if we’ve been paying attention.

  3. Ken Sundet Jones says:

    Sadly, it wasn’t Luther. It was D. Thambyrajah Niles. Luther’s last written words, found on a slip of paper in a pocket after he died, were “We are beggars. This is true.”

  4. bjohnson says:

    Where was this- Corinth? Is this a TRUE story?
    I hope its not, or at least that it’s embellished to make the point.

    And then again, I desperately HOPE its ALL true- for me as well.

    May His Grace be Always so Amazing.

  5. […] The Sinners’ Christmas Pageant: Jason Micheli shares a story about a Christmas Pageant he worked on with a unique cast of characters. What he discovered was grace, and a promise that is too good not to believe. […]

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