Henry stepped into the aisle, his beloved Eeyore in hand, and began to carefully, quietly process towards us, stepping like a bride to the wedding march, a bouquet of stuffed donkey held in front of him.
Those of us involved in any way in children’s ministry, whether as parent, leader or teacher, are aware of the beauty of the Holy Spirit breaking into the work in fun and unexpected ways, even at such a sacred event as a re-enactment of the nativity. I believe the reason A Charlie Brown Christmas is the #1 favorite TV Christmas special (as I heard on the radio the other day) is because of this very phenomenon. Charles Schulz had an amazing way of demonstrating the holiness of the incarnation through the antics and adventures of children.
My son, Joe, was born in November of 2007. And although I had had a 6-week-old baby in Christmas of 2005, we weren’t asked to participate in a Christmas pageant. But 6-week-old Joe was asked to take the honor of playing baby Jesus, a particularly interesting choice to my husband and me as our older son, Henry, is the meek and mild one and Joe is the fiery, passionate, artist – an energy that was noticeable even on the day he was born.
I was asked to play Mary. Because my husband and I ran an independent bookstore at the time, my dad stepped in as Joseph, since my husband had to hold down the fort in the madness of the commercial Christmas season.
On Christmas Eve, we, the esteemed actors, gathered in the narthex dressed up in our bedsheets and other bits of hodge-podge costume, complete with Baby Joe in his peppermint-stripped Christmas suit — a kooky-looking bunch. Two-year-old Henry watched from a pew as his mommy and granddaddy walked down the aisle and posed at the front of the church. Children older than Henry processed bearing stuffed animal heads on sticks and gathered around Mary and Joseph.
Intermittently with the famous scripture from Luke, Christmas hymns were sung and I watched as little Henry beamed at me like a proud parent with an amazingly mature and angelic smile from the pew with his grandmother and aunt. I was glad he wasn’t upset to be apart from me and Joe.
Baby Joe/Jesus was carried down the aisle by an angel and laid in my arms. I glanced at Henry again and felt a sudden moment of panic. I could see he was standing and straining, reaching for the end of the pew, my sister-in-law pulling on him in an attempt to hold him back. In a split second it became evident that there was no holding him back, and I watched in slow-motion as she let go. But Henry wasn’t upset, missing Mommy. He was in-SPIR-ed. The Holy Spirit was calling.
Regrettably I cannot remember which slow and lovely Christmas hymn was being sung at that moment, but Henry stepped into the aisle, his beloved Eeyore in hand, and began to carefully, quietly process towards us, stepping like a bride to the wedding march, a bouquet of stuffed donkey held in front of him.
I was desperately trying not to laugh. It was more than I could bear and there I was, Mary, at the front of the church, about to lose it and fall off my stool with the humor and joy of it all. It was all I could do to make it through. I kept turning my head behind me to look at my priest and judge his reaction but he was engrossed in the service, seemingly not noticing what was going on. Henry kept coming in his striped sweater, khaki corduroys and brown church shoes – no curtain, towel, or tin foil halo wrapped around his head.
I urged Henry towards us subtly and reached out my hand for him to come up the steps and join us, Jesus’ proud older brother, leading a donkey to manager, participating fully in the holy moment.
The final hymn was Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. I leaned down to Henry and whispered, “Do you hear? – just like Snoopy. It’s the Snoopy song.” I thought it might make a connection to the Christmas pageant for him as he loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, even at that young age.
I suppose we recessed down the aisle afterwards but I really don’t remember. I was so caught up in the amazing experience that I’d just been through. Finally, after the service I was able to grab my priest and say, “Did you see that?!” Wasn’t that hilarious?” He looked at me with shock and said, “You mean that wasn’t on purpose?” He had noticed Henry but thought nothing of it. He thought with the donkey and Henry’s seemingly practiced march down the aisle that we had orchestrated the whole thing.
Nothing seemed out of place.
It was incredible and it taught me the lesson that anyone, at anytime, can come to worship the Christ child and take part in the nativity. I suppose that’s what Jesus would say.
Carrie Graves is the director of Trinity Cathedral Bookstore in Columbia, SC, and President of the Episcopal Booksellers Association. She has served as an EFM mentor and Confirmation teacher at St. Martin’s-In-The-Fields, Columbia, SC, and currently serves there as a lector and Eucharist minister.