The Herdman children (those beloved bullies from Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever), don’t know the Christmas story. They’ve never heard of Mary and Joseph. They aren’t sure what to make of the shepherds and the angels seem like something out of a comic book. They’re angry at the innkeeper for making Mary give birth in a barn, they can’t get enough of Herod – clearly the villain of the story – and they’re mystified by the wisemen from the east.
They’ve never heard this story, so it falls to the bewildered pageant director and the rest of the congregation – who have heard it year in and year out – to teach it to them.
It seems to me that the task of the church to be the keeper of stories. Not just the Christmas story, but all our stories: the story of scripture, the story of the church tradition, the stories of the community and individual stories – in all, the story of how God works in the world. It’s a story that gets told and retold, each year, as Advent turns to Christmas, Christmas to Epiphany, Lent to Easter, Easter to Pentecost. Each season’s story leads to the next, each story reflected in all the other stories – new life always born again, through angels announcing the good news, or the surprise of the empty tomb, or the tongues of breath and fire, or the stories of living and loving and serving and dying that fill out the long stretches of ordinary time.
Marking time together, the church keeps these stories, protecting them, holding them gently, telling and retelling them, passing them on. By keeping these stories, we hold onto the covenant of the rainbow, the promises to Abraham, the manna in the wilderness, the vision of Isaiah, the hope and the mystery of God incarnate in a stable-born baby.
It turns out that the Herdmans pick up the Christmas story pretty quickly, though the shepherd boys quake at the sight of Gladys Herdman, playing the angel, for fear she might hit them, and the wisemen forgo the traditional gifts in favor of a Christmas ham. Imogene, the oldest of the Herdman kids, plays Mary. As she enters the crowded sanctuary on the night of the pageant, she hangs on tight to the baby-doll Jesus, keeping him safe, as the tears streaming down her face shine in the candlelight.
A few years ago, I found myself crying on Christmas Eve, too. I was leaving the church I served, moving on to a new call the very next week. This would be one of the last times I would worship with these people I had walked with for four good years. It was an emotional week, in any event – at home, we were hosting family and celebrating Christmas in the middle of moving boxes – but I’d held it together until we got to communion.
I stood at the front of the sanctuary, holding the bread and the cup as the congregation came up to share the feast. As I looked at these friends who were much more than parishioners, as I offered them the bread of life and the cup of hope, something happened: I began to see not just the person in front of me, but also their stories: There was Dan, who always brought me mushroom stroganoff so I’d have something vegetarian at potluck dinners, and who still cried when he talked about the death of his two-year-old son 35 years ago. Carol came holding the hand of her long-awaited daughter, born after years of infertility. There were Ann and Richard, whose son has cancer and every time he goes into the hospital they wonder if it will be the last. And there was Rebecca, whose mother had just died that week, who had a laugh that reverberated throughout the church.*
There was no stopping the tears. What made me cry, I think, was the overwhelming awe that these people had let me know these things about them. (Rev. Ames, in the novel Gilead, says, “That’s the strangest thing about this life, about the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your office and tell you the most remarkable things.”) These people, coming forward for communion on Christmas Eve, had welcomed me into their families and their homes, their hospital rooms and their back yards, and offered me the gift of their stories, saying, in effect, “Hold these, please… carefully, for they are precious to me.”
All these stories, of hopes and sorrows and celebrations, just stories of regular life on earth, came together that night with that other story – the one we know so well, the one with angels and shepherds, the one with the baby no one expected, the one where God came to life on earth. And somehow, in a way I can’t even really explain (though I think Imogene Herdman got it), these stories have something to do with one another.
What an honor it is, to be the keepers of these stories. We hold them carefully, for they are precious, to us, and to the world. They are part of the very big and never ending story of God.
*I’ve changed these details a bit in order to respect the privacy of the stories entrusted to me.