Here is a meditative reflection I wrote for the Christmas Eve service, which included the children’s pageant, at Circular Church here in Charleston in 2003. (This is Bert speaking.) May I offer it again on this Christmas Eve to a more widespread community?
I grew up in a huge church on the north side of Birmingham.
The building was smaller than this round meeting house and there were half as many people.
But when I went there as a child, it was huge.
Monumental things were enacted there.
The wedding of my parents.
My baptism when two months old.
The funerals of grandparents, uncles and aunts.
My introduction to music, all kinds, singing and instrumental.
Coming to faith and a sense of purpose for my life.
First friendships, acceptance into a community; and huge love, multigenerational, beyond measure.
One of the rites of passage in my childhood church was the annual Christmas pageant.
I came up through the ranks: cherub, angel, shepherd, wise man ... Joseph!
Exotic costumes, lines to memorize, songs to sing.
The three aisles were pilgrimage routes to Bethlehem.
The platform in front was fields for flocks-by-night, the choir loft the theater for angels.
The soft rounded ceiling of that small church was the vault of heaven.
The pageant did its job for me and many other children like me.
It gave birth to IMAGINATION.
Fantasy. Magic. Narrative. Goodness.
The Christmas pageant activated a sacred world with angels that sing, fetuses that leap for joy, a virgin that conceives, stars that guide, dreams that signify. And above all, goodness that radiates.
C.W. Lewis told the story of his conversion in his memoir, "Surprised By Joy."
It happened for him not in childhood but when he was grown up and a professor at Oxford. He was in Paddington Station, London, one afternoon and picked up a paperback to have something to read on the train home. Before he got back to Oxford, he knew that he was a different man. The little book, "Phantastes," a beautiful Scottish fairy tale written by George MacDonald, opened the eyes of his imagination, as he put it, and planted in him a transformative belief in goodness.
Lewis woke first to the goodness and beauty of the ordinary world through the eyes of an awakened imagination. Then later, he came to believe that the goodness in the world was God; and later still he became a Christian. Surprised by joy, he said, at every level.
A child in a Christmas pageant has not grasped with her mind many religious ideas, if any. But the pageant may be awakening in the child her spiritual imagination. There is a good story and dramatic action, and the textures and color, sounds and movement, of art. And in the matrix of fun, caring and working together, maybe also a sense of goodness.
That’s enough for the child! Why? Because when she has learned to see goodness in herself and the world and has made room for an awakened imagination, then other things of faith can unfold. But if we don’t learn goodness, as a child can and Lewis did, and if we don’t have the imagination to love metaphor, faith can become mean-spirited and literal and arrogant.
That happened to me. My rationalism outran my imagination after years in school studying theology. I was very sure I possessed the truth, and whoever didn’t agree with me was wrong,
No need to listen to them!
Only gradually and by grace did my imagination catch up again with my tone-deaf facticity, and I could return to see the Christmas story for what it is: a pageant, a graceful exercise of the spiritual imagination. A story with heart, that stirs up love and majesty and awe. A story that nurtures a sense of goodness, which is, again as Lewis said, a world full of God.
Luke’s birth narrative (Chapter 2) is a story full of beauty and symbols. Everybody is always bursting into song. Reality is always multidimensional. It is more like a poem than a textbook.
Come to the story with your spiritual imagination and you enter it in a new way. It was created to express a truth that doctrines can only touch the outside of. Maybe children’s pageants are the form that expresses the story best: notoriously untidy, lovably chaotic, always warm and lively and full of surprises. In a word, real. And all in the context of love.
Tonight, when we receive the Christmas story like a children’s pageant, young or old or somewhere in the middle, we can still hear the angels sing!