And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb … and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

– Luke 1:41-42

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Barbara Robinson’s play, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” It’s about what happens when Luke’s Nativity is introduced by a pageant director to a particular group of children, including the worst of all children, “the horrible Herdmans.” Here’s the rundown, as told by the story’s narrator, Beth Bradley, in a few excerpts:

“The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.

“They lied and stole and smoked cigars, even the girls, and talked dirty and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.

Luke’s Nativity, consequent of the Herdmans, becomes “Joseph and Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child …”

” ‘Pregnant!’ yelled Ralph Herdman. Well. That stirred things up. All the big kids began to giggle and all the little kids wanted to know what was so funny and (Beth’s) mother had to hammer on the floor with a blackboard pointer.

” ‘That’s enough, Ralph,’ she said, and went on with the story.

” ‘I don’t think it’s very nice to say Mary was pregnant. I’m not supposed to talk about people being pregnant.’ Alice, Beth’s friend) folded her hands in her lap and pinched her lips together. ‘I’d better tell my mother.’

” ‘Tell her what?’

” ‘That your mother is talking about things like that in church. My mother might not want me to be here.’

“I was pretty sure she would do it. She wanted to be Mary, and she was mad at Mother. I knew, too, that she would make it sound worse than it was. (Alice’s mother) didn’t even want cats to have kittens or birds to lay eggs and she wouldn’t let Alice play with anybody who had two rabbits.”

The explicit commentary by the Herdmans shows the Gospel’s nearness to real life. Propriety gives place to a glorious mixing of the earthly and heavenly. As an example this, and taking their cue from Luke, the Herdman slant is on Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy. Among other embarrassing scenes, we are presented with a 10-minute tirade as Joseph sulks and fumes, stomping about the stage shouting, ” ‘Mary, how could you have done this to me?” The congregation is being made to feel excruciatingly uncomfortable. A woman mutters afterward, “I’ve never thought of the Nativity as a soap opera before.”

Nor have we. We hardly know what to do with all this – but Luke does! He turns gynecology into theology. Mary’s pregnancy becomes a revelatory affair. Of Mary, Luke wrote,

“You have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Luke’s Gospel fairly somersaults. There are singing angels. The story doesn’t so much preach as tumble into a song of gladness. We envision a humble peasant girl, now pregnant, singing to herself, as she looks out across the Judean hills bathed in winter’s twilight.

In the words of theologian Rubem Alves, “(Her) hand slides over the belly, looking for some difference … She smiles … And the eyes smile while the lips half open to croon, quietly, a lullaby … she feeds on the sacraments of a day which is not yet born … the imagination soars … the loved and awaited invisible one transfigures the body which lives in another time … an aperitif of a new world.”

Pensively, Mary’s thoughts reach toward a future when God’s purposes will find place in the human spirit. She feels the child move within her as she sings a small song of liberation: “My soul magnifies the Lord. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel.

Such is Luke’s marvelous telling of how God came down to us in Bethlehem town. This “Good Reader” is the awesome significance of Christmas!

Amen.

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation emeritus at First Paris Church in Saco. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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