Joan and I are in a Lectionary study group that meets each week to feed at the manger of the Word. Now retired, neither of us has responsibility the following Sunday for processing professionallywhat we study/learn/pray over on Tuesday, but we attend for the theological discipline and for the fellowship.

The passages for the fourth Sunday of Advent were especially challenging, especially given the congregational expectations preachers will face on what many will think of as “Christmas Sunday.”  As we considered the selections from Isaiah, the Epistle to the Romans, and the Gospel According to Matthew,  most of us around the table admitted that we wouldn’t be writing sermons this week. The tradition in many churches is that this coming Sunday is the date of  “the pageant” or “the cantata.”

In fact, even when Christmas Eve arrives, some congregations will gather to hear “Lessons and Carols,” or, if the pageant/cantata presentations haven’t yet arrived, they will fill Christmas Eve worship, and people will go home happy. It is an emotional high that this holy day brings. (Unless it is an emotional low, due to a loss, a disappointment, or some dysfunction in the family.) And once those Christmas traditions are in place, as comfortable as they are, it is difficult to escape them.

The pageant (maybe I should capitalize that: Pageant!) in the church we attend was this past Sunday. And darned if it wasn’t cute. There were clever puppets, children dressed as Mary, Joseph, and animals, adults taking the costumed roles of angels (women) and kings (men). (If only a dark-bearded man could have stood robed in gold with halo and wings!) We sneaked in a couple of carols and some youth read from the Scriptures. The congregation sang, smiled, and clapped.

I recall that when I went to my Vermont church, I was told that, as their new pastor, I was free to re-new, re-form, re-calibrate almost anything the church was involved with…except “The Pageant.” (Now we’ve gotten to two capital letters, such was the significance of that holy event!)  It was not only a church tradition with deep roots going back two or three generations, but it was a community event as well. My limited role in that annual evening program had been dictated by a still-respected, though long-dead, neighborhood pillar.

Here we were, with a church filled with members, visiting families, neighbors, and others, and the pastor’s role was to read from the “scroll” of Isaiah and announce the offering. The choir sang Christmas anthems, the congregation caroled, and the childrent marched through their roles as holy family, angels, shepherds, and magi.

At first, I simply accepted my part, celebrated the history of the thing, and smiled at the adults who took roles there were too few children to fill. Then I began to think that year after year we were treating Nativity as child’s play. And when I finally had the opportunity to pull adults into a grown-up understanding of incarnational love, of the profundity of God-with-us, and the meaning of what the Christ Child would grow up to teach us about peace on earth and in the heart — well, we call those “low Sundays,” the ones following the “high holy days” when attendance is low and the high feelings of the season have passed.

How I yearned to violate the sacred tradition that says “Christmas is for children.” How I was tempted in The Pageant to stand up with that tattered Isaiah scroll, read my part, and then say, “Do you get this?”  Do you know what it means, that “spirit of counsel and might?” What does it mean to you that, He “will decide with equity for the meek of the earth?”  Instead, I read, we sang, and then ate popcorn balls in the church basement.

Frankly, that little Vermont church was a strong congregation, more faithful than most, loving and dedicated folk, salt of the earth and light for the world. This urge to preach an “adult” Christmas was far more my issue than theirs, of course. And the Lessons and Carols service that came on the first Sunday after Christmas was my idea, a good one for both my church and my family. The sermon-less service was break in worship routine for the congregation, and a chance for me to take a week off from the 20 or so hours of sermon prep to be with my family.

Still, and the reason for this entry: how important it is for church folk to somehow move beyond the baby-Jesus sentimentality of these days, not to ignore or abandon that sentimentality, but to move beyond it. And reflect on what it means that the Light has come, that there is a Prince of Peace, and that God-with-us has profound implications for the way we live, move, and have our being.

As always, I have more to say on this. Stay tuned.

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