This past Sunday, our church held its annual Epiphany Pageant. Since the pageant involves using Scripture and hymns to retell the entirety of Jesus’ birth narratives, the pageant replaces most of the Liturgy of the Word (the part of the service when we traditionally read/chant the four lessons and then hear a sermon). Though part of what we love about the pageant is the kids’ presence, we also love being invited into the familiar – rehearing the story of the Christ’s birth and incarnation and singing the hymns that we look forward to all year.
Inevitably, the pageant is a bit messy and chaotic – children forget where to go, costumes do not quite fit, or attention spans are just not long enough. Situating the pageant within the context of worship also means that the entire worship experience that morning is loud and a bit difficult to stay fully engaged in – especially if you are looking for a quiet, contemplative reflection on the incarnation.
But to be honest, that is what I love about the pageant – the holy chaos of it all. We often think about the birth of the Christ Child as a clean story, much like many of the two-dimensional artistic renderings we see of what looks like quiet adoration at a manger. But the whole concept of the incarnation is messy: from Jesus’ scandalous conception, to what had to have been an unsanitary birth among hay and animals, to stinky visitors like the shepherds, to the visit of three foreign men who act strangely and probably raise more suspicion than excitement. The birth of Jesus is a bit of a holy mess, not to mention the rest of Jesus’ incarnate life, which involves hanging with those of ill-repute, with smelly fishermen, and with the seriously infected and ill. Nothing about Jesus’ birth or life is sanitary, controlled, or predictable.
Later on Sunday morning in worship, as I distributed communion, I gave the body of Christ to the young girl who had just played Mary in the pageant. In that moment, the chaos of the day disappeared, and the miracle of the incarnation became much more real to me. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was just a woman, trying to live faithfully, caught in the holy chaos of life. I found myself wondering what receiving the body of Christ, the body of her son, would have been like, especially once he was gone. And just like Mary was just a woman, each one of us in church – the young girl, the middle-aged man, the aging woman – are all just people, caught in the holy chaos of life, trying to make sense of it all, but also eternally grateful for a God who takes on human flesh for us. That is why Church is so incredible to me. In the midst of contemplative prayer, and even in the midst of what feels like a loud, crazy liturgy, God can break through and speak truth to us. I am grateful to our children for reminding me that God is incarnate in the midst of all of life – in the beautiful and quiet, but especially in the messy, loud, chaos of life.