Blogging toward Christmas: Magi at the manger

December 20, 2010

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For the first five years of my ministry, I served a small church
bereft of young children. Christmas presented the perfect opportunity to delve
into the mystery of the incarnation; our Christmas Eve services dripped with
candle wax and Christology.

In my new call as an associate pastor at a large suburban
congregation, I'm responsible for the Christmas Eve pageant. Candles are out--too
dangerous for the wee ones--and there's little room at the inn for theological
rumination when there are donkey-costuming logistics and Joseph-casting crises
to address. (If anyone has ideas about how to convince high school boys that
acting in a pageant is cool, do share.)

My colleague Jan, from whom I inherited this task, is mildly
scandalized by my decision to include a manger-side visit from the Magi. I
figure if Glee
has taught us anything, it's that mash-ups are a way of honoring original
sources--Luke and Matthew should be pleased that their work has been given a
pop culture remix. But Jan's concern is valid. She doesn't want us to treat
these stories as if they are no more sacred than tales of Santa Claus or the
tooth fairy, so that the children grow up and feel they've been misled.

I know the pain of such disillusion; I experienced it the other
day when I reread Luke's Gospel and realized that the cattle were nowhere to be
seen, let alone heard lowing lullabies to the little Lord Jesus. The manger is
there, but the beloved animals are not. There isn't so much as a donkey for
transportation. To think that Aleem Maqbool went to all that trouble
to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by donkey for that BBC special a few years

wish I could say I didn't immediately dash to Jan's office to share my victory
discovery. Perhaps I would have had more self-control if she hadn't scribbled, "Can one of the kings be Elvis?" in the
margin of my pageant draft.

are familiar with the nativity story, but not only from hearing it read at church. We're also familiar with it through popular culture, the story as it is refracted through art,
hymnody and The Greatest Christmas
Pageant Ever
. I'm not sure this is a bad thing; after all, these
interpretations honor the spirit of the incarnation by fleshing out the
stories. All those apocryphal details give us more to grasp and be grasped by.

course, this means that it is all but impossible for people to really hear
Luke's account of Jesus' birth, no matter how eloquently Linus or the liturgist
reads it. This may be a gift to the preacher, in a roundabout way. The
pressure's off. There's no need to parade our complicated theology, which tends
to make sermons so heavy they land with a thunk two feet in front of the
pulpit. There's no need to fret about textual inaccuracies-- some people will
see the three kings whether they are there or not.

All we can do is tell the story with great hospitality, making
room for the whole beautiful mess into which Christ is born: the sorrows, anxieties,
distractions, shallows and even the imaginations.


Yes but

if worship reflects an inaccurate or over simplified reading of scriptures, is it too surprising that in one of the key issues of our time, the treatment of gay people, Christians generally use an oversimplied understanding of the texts to keep them second class citizens? You are a female pastor, implying you are with a reasonably progressive church or denomination... if even the more moderate or liberal churches won't teach people the real historical situation, even if it means giving up some fond impressions, who will?