Extra Sheep

Every Christmas there is that one moment when the story of Bethlehem comes alive right in front of our eyes. It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect. That it’s not done by professionals. That bathrobes suffice for shepherds’ costumes. It’s the annual kids Christmas play at church and it is the best time of the season.

But this year is different. This is the pandemic year. Sheep and donkeys are not allowed in the stable. The shepherds lost their jobs. There will be no visitors from the east due to international travel restrictions. The angels are all wearing masks and no one can tell what the heck they were talking about anyway.

“Today, in the city of D#@%, a K$%G is born. You will find him wr++#d in sw#%%@ing clothes, lying in a m&*#$r.”

Roger, the shepherd boy says, “Huh?”

There’s just no way to have the annual Christmas Pageant.

Still, our kids at church were determined to make a go of it. Six of them got up on stage. There was masking tape on the floor to mark their appropriately socially distanced positions. Any other year and there would have been an army of kids with wings and fake beards, all huddled around a four foot tall Mary and Joseph gazing fondly at a Chatty Kathy Doll lying in a homemade crate.

They sang two songs and then by prerecorded video, they told the Christmas story in their own words. The lines were not scripted, which was the point. This was not kids stumbling over the King’s English from Luke.

“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them.”

This was pure, unfiltered wonder. Little faces in front of the camera. Eyes squinting, smiles bursting, and legs swinging as they tried to find the words that told the story as they remembered it.

We learned a few things this past Sunday. The wise men brought gifts of “gold, myrrh, and Frankenstein.” No wonder they were “sore afraid”. They also sat around and sang, “Joy to the World”, which is inspiring since that song wouldn’t be around for another 1700 years. The most insightful comment? “The wise men rode Llamas and followed a star because they didn’t have GPS.”

I’m just telling it like I heard it.

All in all, it was a grand performance. But I think we all missed the real deal. The kind of choreographed wonder that has been handed down for decades, maybe centuries. It happens in every church sanctuary in every town, except for this year.

You know play I’m talking about.

Beulah Baptist Church in Anytown, USA. Mrs. Walters has been directing the children’s annual Christmas play since her own two played the part of Mary and Joseph back in 1964. She handpicks the lead roles because she knows who will make the best shinning stars. The proud parents. Six shepherds. There’s not enough room on stage for seven. Three Magi. One Donkey. Three sheep. Two cattle. An older child for Gabriel. The rest are assigned to the heavenly host singing hallelujah. It’s been this way through seven different Pastors.

Only this year, some of the younger mothers got involved and suggested to Mrs. Walters that perhaps they could use more sheep. That perhaps there could be more Magi. “You know, the Bible says there were three gifts, but we don’t really know how many Wise Men came from the east.” And maybe Susan would make a better Mary because her hair is dark brown, not blonde.

Mrs. Walters pursed her lips and lowered her glasses. She let her pride get the best of her. “I’ve been directing this play for 40 years, and we’ve done just fine like it is. If you think you could do better, then maybe you three should take over.”

They took her up on the offer. It caught Mrs. Walters off guard. She had never really been challenged before and she never imagined that anyone would take her spot.

Opening night comes. The sanctuary is packed as usual. On a normal Sunday, there’s plenty of room for folks to sit. But this is that one time when it’s standing room only. Grandparents. Family from out of town. That one wayward Dad who smells a little like Jim Beam.

Mrs. Walters takes a seat right up front. Not because she is excited to see how well the children do, but so she can see how miserably these young mothers will fail. She knows it is wrong to feel like this. But she’s hurt. She can’t help herself. Bitterness has a way of getting to the best of us.

The lights go down. The piano quietly plays just the melody of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. An unseen narrator sets the mood as Joseph and Mary and a gimpy Donkey make their way across the stage.

By the time the manger scene is set, there are fourteen shepherds, five Magi and what looks like to Mrs. Walters an entire herd of sheep. “This will never work”, she thinks. Two of the sheep are bleating out of turn and giggling. She would never have allowed such behavior. There are only 10 angels in the background, which to her doesn’t even come close to looking like a heavenly host. “This is all wrong.” She can hardly bare to watch.

Just as she is basking in her unfounded satisfaction, one of the sheep gets up out of his place. She had noticed that he was yawning during the Wise Men scene. Sheep #12 comes over and climbs up in the chair right next to her. She leans away at first. Then this stray little sheep lays his head in her lap.

The young mother directing this pageant notices and smiles at Mrs. Walters. The older lady manages to turn up the edges of her lips just a little bit. A reluctant acknowledgment. Yet she knows in her heart that this is how it’s supposed to be. The young giving the old a chance to feel Christmas new again.

The finale is “Silent Night”. And not just the kids singing this year as they have done since 1964. But everyone. The entire body of witnesses standing. Holding hands. The star over the stable glowing. The baby Jesus asleep in the manger. And sheep #12 asleep in Mrs. Walters’ lap. She is the only one not standing, but she is singing.

Radiant beams from Thy Holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth

The room is completely quiet. The night is deeply silent. Then, the place erupts into a thunder of applause that rattles the windows. The noise startles Mr. Hogan out of a dead sleep on the back row and causes one of the angels to start crying. There are few grown up tears, too. It’s the perfect Christmas pageant after all.

Mrs. Walters applauds more than all the rest. “These young mothers did okay”, she thinks. “Yep, they did just fine.”

And though she would never admit it, she kinda likes having all the extra sheep around. Especially, #12 who hasn’t yet moved a muscle.

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