The Christmas Pageant

michael-hall
Michael W. Hall

Older now, reminiscing by the fire, I pleasure myself in thinking of the small, simple things that life has brought to me over these long years of glory, sorrow and inconsequential “ego-nomics” I have eagerly participated in, thinking it was all so important somehow. The cat is curled on my lap on a warm wool blanket. The hearth flames dance around the cedar logs, crackling and popping and enticing me back to by-gone days, more bolder and less wise.

Rocking back and forth, I sift through the good times and those fond holiday gatherings of our extended family; coming home for Christmas to love and be loved by young and old.

One particular Christmas comes to mind as a high-water mark of what “It’s” all about, and how it can be so gloriously expressed in such simple terms as to cause an angel to shed a tear.

I was home for the holidays, late as usual, taking a few precious moments away from a successful career that provided me a modicum of fame and glory, at least as far as the home-towners were concerned. Those were self-absorbed days of sacrifice and toil; of grasping for every cherished gold-ring on the merry-go-round of life. I was looking forward to a short, no-pressure respite with family and friends, having brought along some expensive gifts that I knew they couldn’t afford or obtain in their neck of the woods.

The brief time I allotted each holiday season, to fawn and be fawned over, had become routine and probably more needed for myself than I would admit.

Christmas Eve church service had been a tradition in our family for generations. And not being as religious as hoped for, I had at least found a comfortable spot in my heart for the annual observance of baby Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men and assorted Shepherds, and whatever local livestock could be corralled into our small, hometown, church at midnight on Dec. 24.

To be truthful, midnight service does not actually begin at midnight. But, God forbid, a delay in the festivities would push the hallowed program past midnight, due to a colicky baby Jesus, the Wise Men being called out to a three-alarm fire, or Doc Blakely’s mule deciding it was feeding time again, and there would be hell to pay come Sunday morning.

Methodists are, if nothing else, punctual.

In order to claim our traditional family pew, before some unknowing visitor committed a Yuletide faux pas, we habitually arrive well before the coffee was perked or the post-service cookies were even placed upon their Christmas doilies. Suffice it to say, there was plenty of time to catch last-minute choir rehearsal, acolyte training and the screeching “test, test, testing” of the sacred sound-system.

I typically took this late-night opportunity, in deep meditation, to catch a little shut-eye in the darkened sanctuary, before the wooden pew necessitated a gluteactic shift in position.

Either that, or my snoring became intolerable for one of those pesky cousins seated behind me.

The service began at 11 p.m., the prevailing wisdom being if you couldn’t tell the Christmas Story promptly at that late hour, you might as well attend Midnight Mass at St. Pius across the alley instead.

By showtime, the place was packed and buzzing from the folding chairs in front to standing room only in the loft. It was always good sport to see how long it took the nubile acolytes to light, and then relight, the candlesticks that lined the center aisle, with every spinster’s critical eye fixed upon them.

Eventually, the Pastor’s wife would command the attention of her small, all-volunteer, army of robed and festooned sopranos, altos, tenors and one lonely bass, with the eagle-eye stare of officiousness she wore so well on such occasions. The thin, Dickenesque character mounted atop the ornate organ would then startle the congregation awake with the same overture he so expressively plays with gusto and verve at every auspicious occasion; it being his favorite piece from the bowels of his upholstered tuffet.

Things were going along smoothly as far as the pageant was concerned. The only major controversy being the young, unwed, mother who was chosen to play Mary had insisted upon using her own fresh newborn as baby Jesus. It took a special dispensation to allow such a thing in our community. But, with a bit of loose exegesis, the biblically apropos scenario eventually won over the elders at the last moment. It also helped that the wayward waif’s father was a major contributor to the church’s capital building fund.

In any case, mother and child did reasonably well under the circumstances, as attested to by the visible sigh of relief on the musical director’s face; an ex-Radio City Music Hall “Rockette” who had left Broadway decades earlier, to raise a family (with her previously gay choreographer-husband) back home. The entire affair was winding its way to the traditional, climactic, sing-along of “The Hallelujah Chorus” when suddenly something meaningful happened that knocked my Yuletide complacency clean out of the park.

I was seated on the aisle at the far side of the congregation; an anonymous location I thought well-suited for my uncommitted participation, should anything unusual be required at that late hour. The entire town of Bethlehem was crammed onto the platform for the big finale, as the shining Christmas Star was gingerly being lowered on a string by the retired pastor-emeritus, incongruently dressed as a Roman Centurion.

Suddenly, while the barbershop-quartet Shepherds were rejoicing on high and the Wise men were bowing on arthritic knee, a bevy of scantily costumed, barefooted, angels, in flowing white robes, which were gathered at the bosom with gold lamé, came tip-toeing down the aisles carrying ceremonial offerings to the Lord. The main aisle was, as one can imagine, cast with the best our little community could muster as far as angelic womanhood was concerned. The Mayor’s daughter, a fit and graceful aerobic-instructor, lead the way, followed by a few remarkably toned divorcees and a youthful, substitute, gym-teacher, who had recently graduated from community-college, bringing up the rear.

The adjacent aisles on either side of the sanctuary were haphazardly filled with those few other eager souls who the retired Rockette obviously didn’t have the heart to turn away at the open audition.

It was then that it happened for me. As I stirred from my big-city complacency, and lifted my head to glance around, there, dancing next to me, in the soft glow of a musty, overhead can light, was a pleasantly plump, middle-aged woman, dancing with the expressiveness of someone half her poundage, but nowhere near her grace. Her angelic face glowed beneath her golden crown, like a classic painting by a revered master. She moved with humble purpose, as if dancing before the Lord of Lords, which indeed she was!  Only myself a few nearby parishioners were privy to her humble and glorious performance.

I, for one, could not keep my eyes off her. Not because of her beautiful hand motions or her graceful dance steps. It was the simple countenance of her Godly worship that was so breathtaking and awe-inspiring to my tired, worn-out soul. Suddenly, I knew I’d been away too long from my true purpose and faith. I had been caught up in the Big City rat-race, trying to be something or someone that I’m not, nor would ever be. I was cut to the quick by her unabashed gratitude, despite her, or perhaps because of her, outward appearance. I received the distinct impression that she carries her heart just as she carries herself through life, making a small, but meaningful, difference wherever she goes.

I lost her in the crowd as everyone stood for The Hallelujah Chorus. I craned my neck to glimpse her again as a lump rose in my throat and I choked on Handel’s familiar words of timeless praise. Suddenly, I was humbled and grateful for all that I have, and God’s grace that I had so undeservedly received; realizing how little I’ve given in return.

Now, as I gaze more wisely at the embers of my life, rocking softly before the fire, I am truly grateful for the small, simple, things… that mean so much.  Merry Christmas….

— By Michael W. Hall

Michael W. Hall, J.D. is the founding partner of The Hall Law Firm, P.S. He graduated from Edmonds High School in 1971.

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