The “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant” is borrowed from Rev. Jory Agate of First Parish in Cambridge, and she got it from someone else; to the best of our knowledge, it is in the public domain. This version is rewritten and modified by Rev. Dan Harper for use at First Unitarian in New Bedford. The story about Hannukah is also in the public domain.
The first reading this morning is from the Hebrew scriptures, words written by the prophet Isaiah. Early Christians interpreted this passage as a prediction of the coming of the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth.
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
“Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
“For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian….
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” [KJV, Isa. 9.2-4, 6-7]
The second reading this morning is by the humanist and Universalist minister, Kenneth Patton.
Ours is the mood for mythologies —
tales of gods and heroes,
virgin mothers and shining babes.
Our myths are of dying huntsmen,
weeping goddesses, jeweled gifts
for a king’s son, nostalgic promises
of miracles and forever.
In the pause of the year
— when time stops, —
— when reality is no longer real: —
We make a feast of poems,
a celebration of telling tales,
a delight of songs.
[from Hymns of Humanity, heavily adapted by Dan Harper]
Story for all ages
[This story was acted out with help from members of the congregation.]
You all know about Christmas, right? Christmas is the story of the birth of a little baby. Christmas is the story of how some people thought that little baby was going to grow up to be a new King of Israel. Because even though when Jesus was born, the Romans ruled over the land of Judea (what we now call Israel), it had once been a free country. You see, it’s like this….
A hundred and seventy years before Jesus was born, the Seleucid Empire ruled the land where the Jews live. Antiochus IV, the local Seleucid ruler, wanted to destroy the Jewish religion, and one day he and his soldiers took over the Jewish temple.
But they hadn’t reckoned with brave Judah Maccabee, who was leading a rebellion against the evil Seleucids.* Judah and his sons and other soldiers beat back the Seleucids…
Then brave Judah Maccabee dumped out the statue of Zeus that evil King Antiochus had put there, they cleaned out the remnants of the pigs that had been sacrificed to anger them. Then they discovered that the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, had gone out.
They had only enough pure oil to last for one day; yet, a miracle, it lasted eight days, long enough for them to get new oil.
So began the festival of Hannukah, a festival of the rededication of the Temple. Today Hannukah reminds us how precious a thing religious freedom is — Hannukah reminds us to light a candle against the darkness, to show our willingness to fight for our freedom.
[from * — adapted from words by Rabbi Michael Feshbach]
But the kingdom that Judah Maccabee rebuilt didn’t last very long. Sixty years before Jesus was born, the Romans took over the kingdom founded by brave Judah. At first, the Romans gave the Jews independence and freedom, but gradually, gradually the Romans took over more and more and more control until at last the Jews began to think once again of rebelling against foreign rule which had been imposed upon them….
The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant
The story appears in plain type, instructions to the congregation appear in italic type, and stage directions in square brackets [ ].
The Christmas story is rooted in old, old tales of the winter solstice. In ancient times in Europe, when the solstice came, our distant ancestors sometimes told stories of a miraculous child born to return us to the light. Throughout the world, people tell stories of a child born to a royal family, or to an important and rich family, who would grow up to lead humankind into a time of truth and justice.
The early Christians adapted these stories of miraculous births — but they added a twist to the old stories. Their miraculous child was not the son of a king, but was merely the son of a carpenter; he was not the son of a wealthy queen, but was instead the son of a woman whose only wealth was her moral purity. And that Christian story has been told and retold innumerable times since those early Christians first began telling it 18 or 19 hundred years ago.
We are going to recreate the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus this morning, but we are going to give it our own slant. We’ll draw on two early Christian accounts of Jesus’s birth, from the books of Matthew and Luke. Since we take the story of Hannukah seriously, we are going to make this a story of freedom and liberation. And drawing on our own Universalist heritage, we are going to make this a story of hope for all people.
Instead of just listening to or watching the story of the birth of Jesus, we are going to get inside it. Try to forget that you’ve ever heard this story before: even though you recognize the familiar characters, even though you remember the familiar plot, try to hear this story as if this if the first time you’ve heard it. At various points in the story, I am going to ask if some of you would be willing to come up here with me, and play the parts of some of the characters in the story. Don’t worry, you won’t have to speak! When I pause and ask for volunteers to play parts in the story, if you want to be in the story raise your hand, and I will call on you to take a part. Then you will move over there [point to Robers] (always walking slowly and calmly) where you will be dressed in a simple costume. Emma will then place you in the growing tableau.
Ready? Then let’s begin…
If you wish, close your eyes for a moment. Transport yourself to another time and another place. Imagine that a story is going to unfold before your very eyes, a brand-new story you’ve never heard before.
Imagine that after years and years of hearing stories about women and men bowing down before powerful kings and emperors and dictators and tyrants, you finally hear a story in which three powerful wise people kneel down alongside some shepherds before one tiny, new-born child.
Imagine that after years of hearing story after story telling of terrible wars, you are at last hearing the friendly story of a baby: the story of a humble carpenter and his wife, the baby that is born to them in a stable, shepherds in a star-lit field who go to see the new-born child, and peaceful animals who gather round in the stable where the baby lies in the cow’s feeding trough. Imagine that at last you are going to hear a story in which everyone is longing for peace on earth and good will to all persons, everywhere.
Imagine that after years of hearing stories about the results of hatred and oppression and persecutions, you finally are hearing a story about the transforming power of love.
Now slowly open your eyes. Listen and watch carefully. Let the story begin!
To start the story, I need someone to be Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.
[A member of the congregation volunteers to be Caesar, gets gold laurel to wear, is placed in pulpit.]
In those days, long, long ago, a decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, saying:
“All the world should be registered so they can pay taxes to me!”
[Caesar moves to stand beside pulpit, arms crossed]
Now I need two people, one to be Joseph, a carpenter, and one to be Mary, who’s engaged to Joseph.
[Two members of the congregation volunteer, Mary gets a blue robe to wear, and Joesph a red robe.]
Mary and Joseph, once you have your robes on, could you please walk slowly (because you’re making a long journey) up these stairs right, along the chancel stage past the pulpit, and back down those stairs. Oh, and this first scene is a starlit night, so could everyone else please hold up your hands like this, as if your hands are twinkling stars…
All the people were required to go to the town where they had been born to register. For some people, that meant a long journey. Joseph, a carpenter, had to go all the way from the town of Nazareth in Galilee [point to rear of auditorium], to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David. He went with Mary, the woman he was planning to marry, because she was expecting a child. They started on their long journey, traveling by day, and sometimes even by night, their road lit only by stars.
Joseph and Mary knew it was not going to be easy, what with Mary almost ready to have her baby. At least they had a donkey that Mary could ride on. And at least the twinkling stars made the road seem friendly.
[Joseph and Mary move to two chairs on platform in front of pulpit.]
Thank you for the stars — now that Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, you can put your hands down.
When Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, they discovered that there was no room at the inn. But the inn was the only place in town with comfortable beds. The only place Mary and Joseph could find place to take shelter was in a stable cut into the side of a hill. So they settled in to sleep there among the animals.
Now I need some animals: a cow; a pig; two chickens; I’m sure there was a mouse; and since this was the middle east, let’s add a camel.
[Members of the congregation volunteer, receive animal noses to wear, and gather around Mary and Jospeh.]
The gentle animals welcomed Joseph and Mary into their stable. And that very night, the time came for Mary to give birth. It was a stable, so when the baby was born of course there was no cradle for Mary to lay her baby in. But one of the cows was kind enough to lend her feeding trough for a cradle, and Joseph and Mary laid their new baby there among the hay in the feeding trough.
Now I’m going to need two Shepherds. Of course, I will also need Sheep for the Shepherds to watch! And I need one person who is willing to be a Messenger from the God of the Israelites, also known as an Angel of the Lord.
[Members of the congregation volunteer to be Shepherds, receive robes to wear. Four Sheep get Sheep masks to hold in front of faces. Sheep and Shepherds stand to one side of pulpit. Member of the congregation volunteers to be the Angel, receives wings and tinsel halo to wear.]
In that region, there were shepherds who lived for months at a time out in the fields, watching over their flocks of sheep by night. They had to watch over their sheep because there were wolves in the hills that would gladly eat a sheep, if they could get one.
[Angel goes into pulpit.]
On this night, as the shepherds stood watch in their fields, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and this angel was truly magnificent, and the glory of the God of the Israelites shone around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, the shepherds were terrified. But the angel spoke gently, saying to them:
“Do not be afraid, for I have appeared to bring you good news of great joy for all the people of Israel. To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah. This will be a sign to you: you will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cow’s feeding trough.”
Ah — I see we’re going to need lots more angels all of a sudden. Perhaps I could prevail on everyone in the congregation to stand for a moment, as you’re willing and able, face the Shepherds and Sheep, and act as a host of angels?
Then the angel who had spoken went on to say:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth let there be peace and goodwill among all people everywhere.”
And there was a whole host of angels singing and praising God, and the shepherds were amazed.
Upon hearing the message from their God, and hearing the songs of the angel choir, the shepherds said to one another, “This is amazing! Let’s go up to Bethlehem and actually see the baby the first angel told us about!” Being good shepherds who cared about their sheep, they brought the sheep along.
[Sheep and Shepherds gather around Mary and Joseph]
So the shepherds went to Bethlehem with their sheep, and there they found Mary and Joseph and the new baby, just as that angel had told them. (Afterwards, the shepherds would tell everyone what the angel had said to them about Mary and Joseph’s new baby, and everyone who heard their story was amazed.)
As for Mary, she already knew her baby was wonderful. But she listened carefully to what the shepherds said, and treasured all she heard in her heart.
The shepherds and sheep gathered around the feeding trough admiring the baby. They praised their God for this wonder of new birth, and they prayed and hoped that what the angel said would come true — that there would be peace on earth and goodwill for all people, even for lowly shepherds.
Now I’m going to need three Wise People, who are also royalty. After you get your crowns at the back of the church, please begin walking slowly up the aisle, and stop at the first pews.
[Three volunteers from the congregation receive crowns, and begin walking up center aisle of church.]
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three wise persons, who were kings and queens from the Far East, came to Jerusalem.
As these three wise persons journeyed their long, slow journey to Bethlehem (actually, it took them 12 days to get there, which is why we talk about the twelve days of Christmas), they noticed that their way was lit by a large and bright star.
It looks like I’m going to need someone to be the Star….
[A member of the congregation gets a large silver star on a pole to hold over the whole scene.]
First the wise persons went to visit King Herod.
I’ll need someone to be King Herod, and you can stay seated right where you are.
[A member of the congregation sitting near the front is crowned as King Herod.]
And these wise persons went to Herod and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the skies and we have come to praise him and bring him gifts.”
The three wise persons learned from King Herod about a prophecy which had been spoken long ago, that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So the wise persons set out for Bethlehem, and as they walked, they saw ahead of them the star as they first had seen it in the Far East.
The wise persons followed the star until it stopped over the stable where the newborn child was lying in the cow’s feeding trough.
[The three Wise People go to the platform, stand to one side of Mary and Joseph — wherever they fit.]
When the wise persons entered the stable and saw the new baby, they were overwhelmed with joy at this new life. They knelt down to worship him, and they opened their bags and brought out gifts of gold (because the crowns of kings were made of gold) and frankincense and myrrh (myrrh was what was put in the oil used to anoint kings).
Now we are done. Let us pause for a moment. Look at this scene. It is a special night, with stars and angels and shepherds and wise persons and animals. And they are all admiring a special baby that has just been born.
Why would all these people stand around for such a long time to admire a tiny new baby? There is only one reason I can think of — because the birth of a child always brings hope for the future. And for a people who lived under oppressive Roman rule, all the while longing for liberation, the birth of a child must have been fraught with extra meaning. Will this be the child who leads us to freedom? Will this be the child who breaks our bonds of slavery and establishes a reign of peace and righteousness?
So it is in our world today. In a world that sometimes seems hopeless, we still look with hope to the future. Every time a baby is born, we hope that this child will be one of the ones who leads us to a world of righteousness. And every time we tell this Christmas story, it reminds us that we must go out and work for liberation and justice. We — you and I — are the ones who are responsible for making sure the world is a better place for all the babies that are born.
As our cast of characters hold their places, let’s all sing together — both those sitting in the pews, and those up here with me — let us sing together hymn number 251, “Silent Night.” If you don’t have a hymnal, you can just sing the first verse over three times, or you can just hum the familiar tune. At the beginning of the second verse, I will signal to everyone up here to walk (quietly and calmly) back to where you were sitting.
The ancient sun warms us and spring follows winter or we perish; but no divine savior bears our salvation.
Unto us children are born, new chances are given, refreshingly, creatively, generation upon generation.
The celebrations of tomorrow will have good news of birth, and a sufficient answer to death. There will be stars of hope, and new angels singing new songs.
We ever walk towards hope; and even in the depths of winter we know that the days will grow long once again, and the earth will turn green, and flowers will bloom, and the air grow soft and warm.
[from Hymns of Humanity, adapted by Dan Harper]