It’s a simple story, about a child and about love. Or is it so simple? There’s a teenage mother, being dragged around by a man, without her family, trying to find a place to start her family and welcome to life her beautiful gift from God.
And many believe that the baby was also the son of God and a gift to all men and women. (Something I think we could say about every child—regardless of religion. It’s just that this kid went on to found a religious faith bearing his name.)
Still, that’s really the way I look at it. Every year, I tell the kids, “It’s a simple story.” It’s how we start our first rehearsal when I stand before the group of children, ages 4 to 15, who act out the Gospel as part of the Christmas Eve Mass at my church.
My friend, Jean Bacom Detmer, and I have been involved in this for about eight years. We are not the first to do this. The Christmas Eve Children’s Mass is a tradition that has gone on since I was a child.
Some wonder why we took it on. Talk about messy. We worry about the casting of characters, the costumes, the minimalist scenery and the music at a time of year when we are overwhelmed by our obligations, our expectations, our family’s needs and our perceived duties.
But the answer is as simple as the story.
“It’s magical,” says Jean. This mother of five—and a parenting expert who has a master’s degree in early childhood development—is my mentor. There are only a few, my mother among them, who have taught me more about parenting. Together, Jean and I teach preschool and kindergarten religion class at our church.
The first year, I taught the class alone. Let’s just say that although it was more than 10 years ago, those kids remember that year and me too well. They stay a good 12 feet from me when I pass them on the street.
I was the perfect teacher if you needed someone to hate. I ran the class exactly the way I remembered the nuns had done it while I was growing up.
All these beautiful little people had to sit at their desks, raise their hands, speak when spoken to and behave. It was a chore—for all of us. No fun, no joy and no sense of what I believe faith is all about: love. It was a children’s class with no room for children. I have purposely blocked out the number of absences that year—they were record setting.
Jean walked into the first class like a breath of life. She is a born teacher and taught me to trust myself and to trust the children.
It didn’t happen immediately. I had to rage quietly that nothing was right. Things weren’t neat. Children were out of their seat most of the class. The markers and the paint were mixed up. Things were messy.
Thank God Jean was patient with me.
That same year, Jean and I volunteered to help with the church’s Christmas story.
For years, I had done Christmas right, just like my first Sunday school class. I would get the right turkey, free range organic please; the right tree, Frazier fir, and the right presents for all my guests and friends.
I had to cook the perfect sit-down dinner for 35 on the perfectly decorated table. Once I even spray-painted the vases gold and wove gold grape leaves around each napkin.
It was with that attitude of creating the perfect pageant that I headed into the first rehearsal. Jean had started teaching with me three months earlier. Her lessons had not yet fully sunk in.
At the church, kids were running around screaming. The echo was deafening. Nothing was right. Mary and Joseph refused to sit near each other, let alone hold hands. I told the angels to smile and one burst into tears. No one was listening. I wanted to scream, “Get over here, right now, sit down, shut up and let’s get this Jesus’ story done right.”
But as this welled up inside me, I thought about the story. I thought about Mary. Here was this teenage mother, going into labor on a donkey, moved into a barn to give birth for the first time, nowhere near her mother or any of her relatives, surrounded by straw, animals and a man who had to be strong-armed by an angel before he even believed her. We are told that she knew she was giving birth to a child destined to save the world. But she was also a mother, giving birth to a child she knew was destined to suffer immensely.
Nothing was right that night. No room at the inn. No epidural. Yet, Mary plowed ahead. This Baby Boy was born. She made a cradle for a King, not out of gold, but from a feeding trough.
At that moment, like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch standing cold-footed in the snow with his tight shoes, I got it.
Chaos is inevitable. Fight it and you fight your whole life. But if you learn to accept it and maneuver through chaos, you can turn straw into gold.
“Frankly, all the rehearsals are sort of chaotic and unruly at times,” says Jean. One year, we asked the kids what were they grateful for that year. When they finished, we all yelled, “Thank you, God.” See? You can yell in the church and enjoy the cool echo.
This show is now the center of my Christmas. My soul food. We find order despite the chaos. “That night,” says Jean, “all the parts come together.”
Every year, we evolve. More kids and more parents join us. Last year, seven kids wanted to be the star. So, the lead star walked amidst a sky full of stars with a drummer accompanying them dancing down the aisle. We get better and we understand better the bigger story. The simple story about these children, the pride they feel, the pride their parents feel.
The story of love.