Monday, December 06, 2010

Pageantry

On Saturday and Sunday my church put on their annual Christmas Pageant. People--especially the people who are in it--go nuts over this thing. My first autumn at this church, I was enlisted to be a "Traveler," in the "King's Procession," and in the "People of Other Lands," and I hadn't even seen the production yet. I mean, I know the Christmas story, of course, but I hadn't seen this version of it, and by the time it was all over, though I had a rough idea of all the components and how they all came together, I was still a little uncertain about what I had just been involved in. Mostly all I knew was that we were talking about Jesus' birth and that at the end the narrators said that one day people of all walks of life and all nations of the earth would come and worship the One who gives us life, and then there I was, a white girl in a sari, walking down the aisle.

Last year I got to opt out of the "King's Procession," but I still didn't get to see the whole production until this year, when one of our three narrators couldn't participate. I jumped at the chance. My family read aloud to each other up through the time I graduated from high school, and beyond, so I love reading and being read to. It didn't occur to me that by taking this role, I would also get a different perspective on the Pageant.

On the night of the dress rehearsal, it was not maybe such a good different perspective. Everything was chaotic and we kept having technical difficulties and the whole thing lasted far longer than I had expected or hoped. (God promises to do more than we can ask or hope, but . . . somehow that wasn't what I had in mind.)

On Saturday I had a raging migraine, such as I have not had in a long time (though I've been getting them more often again, of late). I sat up in the balcony far earlier than I needed to be there and tried to relax and stay warm and drown out the low hubbub that was going on around and below me. Then it got to be 2 o'clock and they turned off all the lights and I sat in the quiet darkness and waited for the first scene to go by before I had to read anything. The Pageant had begun.

As it went on, the pain all over began to subside, and I watched as adults and youth and children I know and care about made postcard-scenes in their bits of cloth and glitter and gold lam'e. And I noticed something strange. The best descriptor I could think of for it was Picasso's pithy saying to the effect that "Art is a lie that uncovers the truth." Here we were, a whole bunch of ordinary people, telling an extraordinary story, but not telling it in a very realistic way. There were songs and darkness and spotlights, and no one's costume was, I don't suppose, legitimately first century or Middle Eastern. We had two sheep and a donkey (who at one point almost stole the show because she did not want to exit stage left), and magi wearing bits of drapery and upholstery, and the combined effect was truly beautiful. I hadn't thought those things, which in real life would be quite tawdry, really, could have that kind of a result.

Maybe it helped that I know people here now and all the teens who played Mary and Joseph and the major angels are "my" teens in "my" youth group, but it just seemed like something about everybody's getting dressed up totally differently and putting themselves in a completely "other" context brought out things about them that highlighted who they are, that ennobled them. People carried themselves differently, or the colours they were wearing highlighted certain features about them that made them "more" than they usually seem, or someone caught just the perfect facial expression for the character they were portraying, or the spotlight hit someone just right so that they looked glorious.

Churches nowadays are really "big" on authenticity, and rightly so, I think. I'm really big on authenticity. But sometimes (and I feel I can say this because I feel I've fallen prey to it on more than one occasion) what is touted as "authenticity" turns into self-promotion or self-indulgence, and maybe it's time to recover something that other Christians of other times understood, and that was a sense of wonder and a sense of pageantry and that sometimes, while you don't want to make the costume and mask the place that you live, if they are just temporary measures, they uncover a truth greater than we would have expected.

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