Thursday, December 31, 2020

I Never Got To Be A Wiseman, Until Now (A Christmas Meditation)

Christmases growing up always centered on church with the big event being the Christmas pageant. In those days, we just called it the Christmas “program.” We were simple folk and “pageant” sounded a tad too uptown.
I always wanted to be a wiseman, but never made the cut. It was disappointing and I'm not sure I've ever completely gotten over it. By the time I was grown enough to fit the part, our little church had moved into the “modern day” by discarding the traditional reenactment of the Nativity.
Instead of the brilliant simplicity of the Christmas story read from the Bible and enacted by kids and teens costumed in bathrobes, towels, ingeniously pinned sheets, and a silent toy baby in a manger playing the part of Jesus, we moved to “skits” and “cantatas” that were supposed to make the Bible story more relevant.
These were miniaturized dramas and musicals cast in some contemporary setting that modernized the story of Jesus' birth. It wasn't so much about Him any longer as about the season and good feelings. Or so it seemed.
My attitude toward this was not progressive. I preferred the traditional retelling of the events. Still do.
|| Getting To The Big Day \\
On Christmas Sunday, which was whatever Sunday fell just prior to December 25th, that's when it all happened. 
In the morning service, it was always the little kids reciting lines from slips of paper the size of fortune cookie fortunes. All ages from the little to the small to the tiny participated. But no big kids, adults, or teens; they were on in the evening service.
Always there were a couple of little ones who couldn't remember the four or seven words they were tasked to memorize, and so had to be coached by their teacher or parents mouthing the words s-l-o-w-l-y one at a time.
And, of course, there were the precocious kids that recited perfectly every word with the diction of an experienced Thespian. Show offs.
But it was all adorable. And touching.
Parents ran to the front and jockeyed for position to capture on camera the precious moment featuring their child sharing some tidbit about the coming of the Child. 
In between shuttling the various age groups off and on stage we sang Christmas carols. “Silent Night.” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” “Joy To The World.” All the traditional greats.
We knew the tunes. We knew the words. And we sang our hearts out.
We started singing Christmas songs the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. The typical rest-of-the-year hymns, songs, and choruses were all sidelined. The month of December was all about singing the Christmas carols – the songs of the season sung only this one time of the year – and nothing else. Period. Just as God intended.
|| Back To The “Pageant” Prep \\
We began preparations for the Christmas program a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The casting calls went out, adult assistants were recruited, and the rehearsals began. 
But really, we all knew the different parts by heart. The only questions were who would be cast as whom based on age and growth spurts. Whoever had the better looking bathrobes also factored in.
I dutifully moved up through the ranks.
I did the morning service several times as a small child, saying my part, and, later, participating in the song flute choir. Everyone knew that every fourth grader was given a song flute at school so there was no dodging this rite of passage. 
|| And Now The Big Show! \\
After my years of morning service appearances, it was onto the big stage of the evening service, our stage being nothing more than the raised front of the sanctuary -- the platform. A wire was strung across it and hung with sheets that acted as curtains. We kept it simple.
Over my years of Sunday performances I was an angel or a shepherd. For boys, the progression went more or less like this: angel, shepherd, wiseman, and then if you were really lucky, Joseph, or maybe the innkeeper. Every once in awhile a Roman soldier or miscellaneous bystander was tossed into the mix.
Do you see the problem here?
The same number of kids were in the pipeline. While there was always a need for a “host” of angels and any number of shepherds, all of which could be drawn from nearly any age, for the bigger boys there were only three wisemen, one Joseph, and one innkeeper.
The competition for these roles heated up as we grew. It was all a matter of numbers. Although I’m guessing some backroom politicking went on among the mothers.
For girls, it was worse since they had to jump directly from angels to Mary and that was pretty much it. On occasion there would be a need for a female bystander or the innkeeper would get a wife. Sometimes girls even got to play shepherds. But this was all hit and miss.
|| Don’t Forget The Candy! \\
The program wasn’t the only thing we looked forward to on Christmas Sunday. Besides dreaming of the sweet part in the program we also longed for the special bag of candy.
Every year on Christmas Sunday every person in attendance got a small white paper bag of candy. There was also an orange or an apple included, but the candy was the real prize. We all prayed that the bag we got would have one or two extra of those little caramel candies with the white sugary filling. Those were gold.
The handing out of the candy happened after the morning service and was executed decently and in order. No one took more than one bag unless a family member was home sick. After all, it was the season of colds and flus.
But the men who handed out the bags were aware of who was there and who wasn't and we didn't even have to ask for the extra bag; they knew.
As times changed and inflation grew as steadily as we did, the bags held less and less and the selection of candies became more limited.
Finally, before they were abandoned altogether, the fruit was eliminated and all that remained were a few pieces of the cheaper hard candies. The anti-sugar movement was the final stake. Bah! Humbug!
|| Being A Real-Life Wise Guy \\
I miss the bags of candy and the Christmas programs. And I’ll most likely never get the chance to take on the role of one of the three wisemen in one.
But, for all of us, there are opportunities to be wise men and wise women every day. The Bible offers a lot of guidance on how to do it. Being wise in life is a lot tougher than donning a bathrobe and a cardboard crown and standing silently next to a makeshift manger as the narrator recites, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night....”
Real-life wisdom requires doing the Word.
There have been days when wisdom has ruled. Others where I played the fool all too well. Fortunately, God’s grace can redeem even the dumbest episodes.
His grace was made flesh in a manger a couple thousand years ago. About two years later, the original wisemen, the Magi, found him, were overjoyed, and worshipped the baby king.
Those wisemen had to travel from afar to find the Child, the King of kings. Today, we only have to travel to our knees and this King will take up residence in our hearts and be near to us day in and day out.
How to be a wiseman or wise woman today? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6, ESV).
So, I guess, in a sense, I did make it after all!
But I still miss those bags of candy.
© Stephen R. Clark

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