This Christmas Eve at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul in mid-town Charleston, as in other parishes across our diocese and nation, children and their families will gather for the annual Christmas Pageant. Scripts that have been more or less memorized and rehearsed will be played out before the admiring eyes of family and friends. Performances will lurch forward in the usual manner. Archangels with wings and halos will stand in pulpits or announce with trembling voices from the lectern microphones: “Be not afraid, Behold I bring you good news of a great joy that will come to all the people….” Shepherds will arrive at makeshift stables where the Holy Family gathers ‘round a manger. Perhaps Shepherd #1 will speak his lines boldly and clearly; Shepherd #2’s muttered words will hardly be heard past the second pew; and Shepherd #3 will too obviously read his part from a page taped to the back of the stuffed lamb he nervously clutches to his chest. Of course there will be the normal missed lines…as well as the directions uttered from off stage. But there will also be those electrifying and unscripted moments that bring surprised laughter and joyous tears that every mother and father and grandparent cherishes—the unscripted and electrifying moments when grace and candlelight abounds.
There were such moments of course two thousand years ago when the interplay between God’s script and the unscripted response of his people played itself out on the world’s stage occurring as it did in a minor country, among a seemingly unimportant tribe; and yet with electrifying purpose (as astonishing as it may seem to the eyes of the skeptical) God through the incarnation and atoning work of Jesus Christ brought salvation for all people (Titus 2:11).
One scripted and yet unrehearsed moment was after the Angel Gabriel sent from God proclaimed to Mary the God-scripted-lines, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you: therefore, the child to be born will be holy—the Son of God.” And then the entire unseen heavenly host and all the rest of the created order of the universe held their collective breath and waited for Mary’s unscripted and unrehearsed lines which her few but godly years had been preparing her to speak: “Behold, I am the bondservant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
There were other such moments as well. I think of Joseph who, upon awakening from a life changing dream which the Almighty in his sovereignty scripted and had acted out between the drawn curtains of his sleeping mind, (as Matthew’s Gospel put so succinctly) “…did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”
And I shall cite just one other, which I believe is instructive for each of us baptized into this godly troupe. The angel of the Lord, again scripted by God, appeared to the shepherds on the night-shift with this world-shaking announcement: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherds with unrehearsed and impromptu haste went and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. Then comes the part that God and The Gospel according to St. Luke surely intend to apply as a pattern for us as well: “… they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” It was you might say, unscripted, unrehearsed, impromptu, evangelistic and electrifying! Oh, to be sure God had written them into this drama—just as he has written us into it. It was all according to his grace and mercy. We too like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds shall have our unrehearsed parts at moments God has scripted.
Perhaps your scene will come as the family gathers for the Christmas dinner, or while volunteering at a rescue mission, or writing a check for mission agency, or in a conversation with a stranger while standing in customer service to return some bath salts or perfume. The theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has described Christian doctrine in terms of drama and theater—suggesting that as God’s people we gather in worship—be it in Advent, Christmastide, Easter or Ordinary time and whether in prosperity or adversity—to hear and rehearse God’s script as revealed in Jesus Christ and in Holy Scripture so that we may by God’s grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit act out the message of God’s redeeming work on the stage of the world. May we each play our scenes and speak our lines whenever and wherever they may come as if all our life had been preparing us for these scripted and unscripted, rehearsed and unrehearsed (and occasionally) electrifying moments—for indeed it has!
A Merry Christmas to You and Yours,
Mark Lawrence’s signature
The Right Reverend Mark J. Lawrence
Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina
This message was released December 24, 2015