One day I was enjoying a nice cup of coffee when I overheard an elderly couple talking about a Christmas Eve service they had attended at a local mega-church. It had been quite a show: The church had a full orchestra, choir, and first-class music; they had produced an event that included live animals, flying angels and a Broadway-worthy light show.
It seemed quite a contrast to our routine small church production. Our costumes were old and drab, youngsters far and few between, and the Lucan narrative was delivered with little dramatic flair. "How can we possibly compete with THAT?" I wondered.
Reflecting, I realized: We aren't limited by the size of the church, but the size of our imagination. Our task is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The question isn't "how do we compete" but rather "how do we proclaim?"
Regarding Christmas, we begin by asking key questions: What's the good news? Why do we tell this story -- this way? How might we communicate it more effectively?
In our increasingly secular society, we need to recognize the Nativity is a mystery. In our world, Christmas is a season of parties, gifts, emotional turmoil and financial shock. We produce Christmas pageants and people attend largely because kids look cute in their costumes, the carols are familiar, and it's "tradition."
In a world that is biblically and theologically illiterate, we need to deliver Christmas from schmaltzy insignificance and unveil the marvelous mystery. But how do we do that?
First, we acknowledge and embrace our limitations. We don't have access to big budgets or skilled actors; people are busy; there is little time for rehearsals. For One born in a barn and not a palace, he ought to feel right at home -- thank God!
Secondly, we inventory our assets. We have wonderful facilities designed for sacred drama. Look at what you have, and explore how to use it to share that sacred mystery we call Christmas. How might the altar, windows, candles, and liturgical vestments help incarnate the story being told?
Thirdly, we have the word of God from which to tell the story. Readers may not be gifted, but they can be trained to read well (pace, pronunciation, enunciation and projection). The Scriptures lend themselves wonderfully well to an antiphonal presentation by two readers, which adds drama to the narrative. I find alternating male and female voices works nicely.
The problem with many pageants is that they are little more than a regurgitation of last year's show. The story does not need to be modernized, but it does need to be fresh.
A solid pageant may be presented in three acts wherein the readers/narrators tell the story of creation and the fall; identify failed solutions (the Noah story, the golden calf, the Ten Commandments, etc.); and then deliver God's answer to our need through the Lucan narrative.
Finally, interested participants of any age can create living tableaus during the narration to help bring life to the story. Favorite carols and hymns can be interspersed with the readings to reinforce the story and to draw the congregation into the drama of the pageant.
With inspiration, perspiration, and planning, a pageant can be crafted that speaks in the voice of the local congregation. The story can be told well and faithfully, and the Christmas nativity can give birth to a whole new generation of believers through the power of God's word and spirit.