My last name is Wiseman. And I have two sisters. We grew up in the church as the three Wiseman sisters. So you can guess which kids were always picked to play the “Three Wisemen” in the annual Christmas Nativity play at church. It drove me insane. All I wanted was to be a shepherd and wear a bathrobe with a towel wrapped around my head – but the directors of all of these plays thought it was adorable to let the 3 Wiseman girls play the 3 wisemen since it would be “so cute.”
As I grew up and went into ministry I got a bit bothered by the purée of Gospel that is the typical church nativity play. We take some shepherds being visited by an Angel from Luke, add some magi and a star leading them to the baby from Matthew, and the inn keeper from out of thin air. And we get a Nativity created out of Gospel purée. It is familiar to most of us – and at the same time it is not quite accurate to the story.
This week, I went to a Christmas Program and nativity play at my son’s parochial school and he played one of the wisemen – once again because the director thought it would be “so cute” for him to play the role. We had an angel visit the Shepherds, Magi visiting from the east (three of course, even though there is no evidence that there were actually three), and an innkeeper who allowed Mary and Joseph to stay in a stable out back for the birth of Jesus because no rooms were available in the inn. And I survived. As a biblically trained minister and scholar of practical theology – I survived.
One reason I survived – with little to no reaction – was that I had just experienced something so moving it made me weep. The little kids had sung a song about peace. They were Kindergarten and First Graders – all dressed up in red, green, and white with their hair (for the most part) just right and their smiles so big they lit up the room. And as they sang, I thought about the 20 little kids who were killed last week in Newtown, CT. The similarities were eerie. There were a few little boys with mussed up hair and little girls with bows and hairclips. There were missing front teeth and fidgety bodies. There were beaming parents with handheld video cameras catching every moment of their song – a song about peace. It was almost too much to bear.
But I heard the words and saw the smiles of the kids and parents and knew we were experiencing a moment of amazing grace. Many of these parents had hugged their little ones more tightly over the last week and prayed for those who couldn’t do that anymore. Many of those kids had asked if they were safe at school and their parents and teachers did all they could to reassure them.
Many of them were unaware why the audience seemed to react more to them than to any other group singing that night – but we all “got it.” We saw the little faces of “our” kids but were symbolically seeing the little ones from Newtown. When the crowd applauded louder than normal – the kids took an extra bow. And we knew why we were so touched. I doubt they did but it was profoundly powerful.
The entire show was full of big smiles, cute kids, one or two out of tune singers, a few forgotten words to songs, parents beaming and catching every second on digital memory cards. And it was a sign that we can continue to live fully – even in the midst of the mess of death and horror – and that God is with us in the midst of our grief.
We prayed for those families and lit a candle in remembrance. But we did not need that to bring the irony of these adorable little kids in front of us to remember but what a gift to witness their spirit and delight.
And at the same time to be reminded that we have to be better … we have to end this horror.