Valdosta Daily Times

December 23, 2012

Strangers at the Nativity

A TALE & SCRIBBLES by DEAN POLING
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — One by one, the children walked to the church altar. Each dressed as a participant in the Nativity. Young girls were a host of angels. Young boys were shepherds. Three older boys paraded down the aisle dressed as the Three Wise Men. An older boy and girl, as Joseph and Mary, knelt by the manger which contained a pink, plastic baby doll representing the infant Jesus.

Once all assembled in the familiar scene, each group of children were to recite a particular piece of Scripture followed by a song. The angel girls sung “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The Wise Men sung “We Three Kings.” Each had a song that fit the role.

Packed among the pews were these children’s parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. Regular churchgoers joined them. The Christmas pageant brought in the church regulars as well as faces not normally seen in the congregation on a typical Sunday morning.

These folks sat and watched and listened and smiled as the costumed children presented the Christmas story. They laughed at appropriate moments when a wee child here and there did something unexpectedly expected: Such as one small angel girl pulling off her halo and twirling it on her finger; or a young shepherd boy’s attempt to use his staff to remove a wise man’s crown.

They enjoyed these moments and the entire pageant because, for some older folks, it is this ritual of youngsters acting out the Nativity that puts them in the Christmas mood. It reminds them of the Christmas season. It takes these older generations back to Christmases when they were young and it was they who were dressed as the Nativity people; it was their older relatives who were seated in the congregation, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and so many others, who have through the years passed on and passed away.

So, they watched the Christmas pageant with a mix of love for the children on stage as well as their childhood memories with the anticipation that both the Christmas present and the Christmases past will meet for one shining moment. They watched and listened to the children with faces of joy.

The crying started shortly into the program. A baby’s cries rose above the songs of the angels and the shepherds. It seemed to swallow the words of the Three Wise Men.

The congregation politely ignored the crying, at first. But as the crying became shrill wails, people in the congregation turned in their pews to look at the baby or, more accurately, they turned to stare at the baby’s parents.

The crying baby belonged to a young couple. The parents were two strangers whom no one recognized. This young couple looked bedraggled. The fabric of their clothes seemed as thin as their bodies. They both looked embarrassed as they tried shushing the baby. The couple smiled embarrassed smiles of understanding at the staring congregation, but they could find no understanding even in a sanctuary filled with parents.

People in the congregation shook their heads wondering why this couple didn’t have the good sense and common courtesy to take that bawling, fussy baby out of the sanctuary while the children performed.

These were good people in the congregation, but it was Christmas. Each one wanted to hear his or her son or daughter and all of the other little ones perform the songs they had worked so many weeks to prepare. They wanted their Christmas memory, and they didn’t want it ruined by the increasing wail of a shrill, crying baby.

Stares turned to glares heaped upon that young couple and their crying baby. The young couple rose from their pew and shuffled to the aisle. They walked the long walk toward the door, but they were stopped by a small voice.

“Wait!”

The word came from the youngest angel at the altar. It echoed throughout the sanctuary, even above the sounds of the crying infant. The couple stopped and turned.

“Stay,” the angels said. And the word echoed throughout the sanctuary. The couple did not move while the baby squirmed and cried.

The boy shepherds walked up the aisle. They walked to the couple and took the mother by her free hand. Two boy shepherds pushed the father forward.

“Come,” the boy shepherds said. They escorted the young couple down the aisle.

At the altar, the Three Wise Men offered what was in their boxes. Instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, one of the wise men’s younger sisters had placed a pacifier, a blanket, and a stuffed bear.

“Yours,” the Three Wise Men said, showing the gifts to the young mother.

The girl Mary rose from where she knelt by the manger. She approached the young mother and offered her outstretched arms.

“Please,” the girl Mary said. The mother handed the crying baby to Mary. The boy Joseph removed the baby doll from the manger, and Mary placed the crying baby there. The Three Wise Men gave the baby the blanket, the pacifier and the bear.

The baby’s crying stopped. Silence filled the sanctuary. The congregation realized what nearly had happened. They had almost turned away a couple and a baby at Christmas. A member of the church rose and approached the young couple.

“Welcome,” he said, and escorted the couple to sit with the congregation.

They were barely in the pew when the youngest angel spoke again.

“Sing,” she said, and the congregation joined the children singing “Joy to the World” while the baby lie asleep on the hay.