Written Nov. 30, 2019
From one moment to the next, chaos reigned upon the stage. Maybe it was the panicked baby angels and intimidated shepherds. Or Joseph rallying the Wise Men to put a beatdown on Herod. Or Mary wanting to know why she couldn’t name her own baby, anyway.
Missy giggled. I guffawed. And the audience at the Longmont Performing Arts Center rang the rafters with laughter and applause.
The Herdmans had never been better.
If you haven’t yet met the rampaging Herdman children, I have some wonderful remedial reading for you. They first came to life in the children’s book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and have since stormed their way across stages and television screens around the country (including the current Longmont Theatre Company production). Whatever the adaptation, the core of the story remains the same – the worst kids in town invade the local church Nativity pageant and turn it upside down.
It’s been a favorite of mine since grade school, and not just because of the crazy antics. This is a story that gets the heart of the holiday absolutely right.
Maybe I’d better explain.
Few things are as powerful at Christmas as tradition. There are songs we always sing, decorations we always put up, fights that spring eternal from year to year. (“I told you, the stockings get emptied after the presents are opened, you weirdo!”) That can be a lot of fun – but it also risks changing a wonderful holiday into something routine.
Christmas was never meant to be a china Nativity set, standing peacefully in the corner, unchanging and undemanding.
It’s meant to be transformative.
Even a little terrifying.
It’s a story of being cold and tired and needing the help of strangers.
It’s a story of having a calm night shattered by visions you don’t understand, and beings that have to remind you “Don’t be afraid.”
It’s a story of having friends you never expected and enemies who fear you without ever having met you.
Most of all, i’s a warning that routine doesn’t last. That the world – that our world – can be transformed in the most ordinary of places, at the least expected of times.
That’s hopeful for all of us.
On the surface, we get it. We see snow transform a familiar landscape into something new – and maybe a little unnerving if you have to drive it. We put out lights that turn cold darkness into beauty for anyone passing by.
But it goes deeper down. Or it should.
It’s not a season that demands perfection, like a pageant where the manger has to be exactly so. But it does demand perception. It calls on us to see that there’s more to the world than our expectations. It asks us to truly see the least of these, even when it’s uncomfortable, and to go where we’re needed, even when it’s inconvenient. It challenges us to see how the worst may be the root of the best.
Even if it’s kids like the Herdmans.
Maybe even especially then.
And if we miss that opportunity in favor of what we’ve always done, then we’ve treasured the wrapping paper and thrown away the present.
Be uncomfortable. Let go. Step out of the usual dance. It may mean that life is never the same. But that can be the most wonderful and hopeful possibility of all.
And if it comes with the chance to laugh your head off at a warm and hilarious story – well, call it an early present.
And then watch that present carefully. The Herdmans may still be around.