When I was 23 years old I was working as a youth minister in a parish in Boulder. I was a postulant at the time and preparing to go to seminary, so the Bishop had requested that my Rector allow me to be involved in more adult ministries in the church. So, he put me in charge of the Christmas pageant (I still don't quite get the logic). I decided to do a retelling of the Christmas story. I asked, what would it have looked like if Jesus had been born today (it was 1996) in Boulder? It was actually a pretty clever script. Joseph and Mary Davidson had come to Boulder for the census, and when all of the rooms were filled they had to sleep in the inkeeper's garage. They put Jesus in the back of an old Chevy. Instead of shepherds, the angels proclaimed the good news of Messiah's birth to the homeless on Pearl Street. Rather than wise men from the east, we had professors from the university. Everyone got a big kick out of it. But looking back on that pageant 22 years later, would I do it again? Absolutely not.
What 23 year old me never stopped to consider was why we have Christmas pageants in the first place. As I used to tell my former Children's Ministry directory, pageants are something to be survived ("I didn't realize it was going to be this hard!" she once said to me). So why are we doing a pageant at All Saints this year? Sure, it is adorable, and it gets people into church, but that is not why. We are doing a Christmas pageant because the story is important.
Children, especially young ones, learn by doing. You can tell them a story and they may or may not remember it, but if you put them in the story, if you allow them to experience it as a character in the narrative, then they will internalize it. They will know that it is important. And most of all, they will then be able to tell it to others. But it is important for adults as well. We also need to be reminded of what God has done for us. We may not always show up to hear the sermon on Sunday morning, but if our kids are involved you better believe we'll be there. We need to hear the story of God's great love for us over and over again, because we forget. We start to think Christmas is about presents and parties and being nice to each other. Christmas pageants help adults to put the season into a proper perspective.
The problem we run into when we try to be creative with the Christmas story is that it just becomes another cute story, a fairy tale with a moral message. We short change what God has done when we fail to stay true to the Biblical narrative. What's worse, we teach our children that the Bible is something that can be bent, twisted, and retold to fit our current cultural context. We miss the entire point. The church needs to stop trying to be clever and entertain people and get back to simply telling the story as it has been told for 2000 years.
Our Christmas pageant at All Saints this year will use a script that is taken straight from the Word of God. I used the same script for 14 years in Colorado Springs, and if I have anything to do with it, we will use the same script here into the future. Save the cute and creative for birthday parties and school projects. When it comes to Christmas, just tell the story. That is all you need to do.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.