On Christmas

[Originally written years ago. Slightly editted]

The other night I read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson to my eight year old daughter, Sophie. I was familiar with the story having seen the movie and been read the book years ago. Nonetheless, even armed with my foreknowledge, I had to stop reading several times because I was crying during the last chapter. Man this book is p'rful stuff. The funny thing is, I was crying for a whole new reason. In past encounters with the book and movie I was moved along with the narrator and audience of the pageant by the Herdmans interpretation of the Nativity story. This time I was moved by the Herdman's faith.


----Spoiler Alert, if you've never read the book or seen the movie-----


Just as a refresher here is the basic story:
The Herdmans are mean and nasty and spiteful and cruel and every bully you've ever known wrapped into one and split between six kids. They wind up at the narrators's church because the narrator's brother told them (wrongly) that there were all kinds of wonderful refreshments to be had.

They happen to show up and bully their way into the leading roles in the Christmas Pageant even though they've never heard the Nativity story. After hearing the story they are very interested and ask a number of questions.

Everyone is sure that these mean kids will ruin the Pageant, but they don't. In fact it is the Best Christmas Pageant Ever! During the Pageant, the three Herdmans playing the Magi eschew the traditional Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh in favor of something much more precious: the Ham from their charity Christmas food basket. Imogene Herdman, in the role of the Theotokos, gives a moving performance ending with tears streaming down her face.

After the Pageant, the six Herdmans disappear before the cast party.
__________________________________________

In a "Western" view of the Nativity, the Herdmans are spot on. They are dirty and look lost. The narrator even comments that "Ralph and Imogene looked like refugees, which Joseph and Mary were, if you think about it." [Paraphrasing here] In the past this is exactly how I had understood the story. The Herdmans, by virtue of their poverty, present a much truer vision of the first Christmas than the church had ever seen. We as readers are given an image of Mary and Joseph as hungry, tired, confused, and a little lost.

This view of the Holy Family is pervasive. We know Mary is young. She must be, it's her first child. And Joseph is surely not much older. They've traveled for days and are far from home. Right?

Wrong. On many points.
Joseph is 80 years old. He was selected by the temple priests to serve as Mary's protector after she reached an age which required her to leave the temple.
She desired to maintain her virginity for God and Joseph, a distant relative, had been living an ascetic life for many years since becoming a widower.

He was definitely not lost. Everyone had to go to "his own city." (Luke 2:3) Joseph went to Bethlehem. It is pretty safe to assume that Joseph knew the town pretty well if he considered it "his own city." He may have owned property there.
This is all conjecture, but I would love to know if there is any Patristic comment on this.

Mary was not alone with the token animals in the cave (that's right, the "stable" is a cave) she had several midwives to help her.

Both the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed knew what was going on. She was visited by Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38) and he by an angel of the Lord (Matt 1:20ff).

The point is that the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed were not pitiful lost younguns.

This begs the question, why have they been made out to be so?

I don't have a proof positive answer, but I'll speculate. It is much easier to identify with the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed if they were pitiful. And identifying with these weary travelers is much easier than wrapping our mind around the babe lying in the manger. That babe is God. He is "the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man."

The young Mary knew it. Her betrothed knew it. The Shepherds knew it. The Herdmans, I believe, realized it during the pageant. We would do well to remember it.

Comments

Philippa said…
Ah Raphael, you've ruined the picture perfect image we have of the young innocent couple who hasn't really a clue what is going on! Ha! But when you really sit down and think about it, it makes better sense the way you've explained it...Joseph older and protector of Mary. Truly I like that scenario better. thanks!

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