Sunday morning at Holy Communion was yet another “walk through Bethlehem,” our annual Sunday School Christmas program which is such an exciting, unpredictable and ultimately moving experience, year after year after year. I could write at great length about the pulling of heartstrings, but somehow it is the comedic moments which are standing out to me – and I think it’s possible to talk about them and still be fully respectful of the Christmas Story itself. For surely God did not choose to be born in a shabby barn in Bethlehem if “polished perfection” were the point of it all. And likewise, any program designed to share that story to the world is all the more authentic if there are some bumps and bruises, some surprises and snags, along the way. And when one has a cast that includes both children and barnyard animals, anything can and does happen!
Some of the bumps and bruises this year were actually thanks to me. I walked into church rather shell-shocked from a long day of cleaning in our basement, trying to get us ready for a visit from the cable guy Monday afternoon. I was down there for at least seven hours, hauling books, bagging up magazines, stacking boxes, and just trying to make some order out of seventeen years worth of possession pile-up. Anyway, by Sunday morning I was really beat, both physically and mentally, (it’s emotionally exhausting being ruthless with one’s discards) and it really showed in some of the musical boo boos I made. Perhaps the most serious one I made was in forgetting to play the first verse of “Angels we have heard on high” down a major fifth, which was the key of choice for the young boy singing the solo. As I began playing the introduction in the ‘normal’ key, he apparently got a very stricken look on his face (which unfortunately I couldn’t see from the piano, or I might have realized my error and fixed it during the introduction.) But much to his credit, he fearlessly sang in what I’m sure felt like an impossibly high key – and did just great. That was at first service. Second service, I got the Angels solo right but then screwed up the transposition for the first of our three Kings (Kate Barrow figured out what key would be best for each of our young men- probably the single most crucial factor for adolescent males.) This was a case of me being momentarily distracted by the sight of the llama watching the little kids as they sang “star of wonder” with their gold streamers. I got a little too transfixed by the sight until I suddenly realized it was time for the second verse, and in that moment of mental hiccup, I mistakenly jumped to the Frankincense verse. But young Brian (the King bringing gold, and wanting to sing his verse down in D-flat minor) plowed in on the pitch he was used to using, and it took me about two seconds to realize my mistake and to switch keys midstream- a move which garnered a look of bewilderment amongst the senior choir members.
One moment which made me smile came as our goddaughter Anneka sang a brand new song of mine, “nothing is as it seems” as this year’s Mary. It’s a quiet song, done right before “Silent Night,” and at first service you could really hear a pin drop. Second service, however, the cow started getting restless and was brushing right up against Anneka as she began singing the final verse. Much to her credit, she sang on without missing beat – and it was only the especially bright smile on her face which gave even a hint that things were not quite following the script at that point. And indeed, before the program was over the cow had pretty much charged right down the middle aisle and out the door, apparently having had quite enough church for one day!
But the most amazing moment of comedy in the whole morning came during the recessional at first service, as the kids left down the middle aisle to the strains of “Joy to the World.” The first people down the aisle are the middle school kids, some of whom are leading animals out – with the youngest kids and teachers bringing up the rear. By this point I was up in the balcony, playing the organ – and as we’re starting the second verse, I suddenly heard laughter emanating from the congregation. I looked in my rear view mirror and spotted one of the young shepherds flat on his face in the hay-covered aisle. “Must have tripped,” I thought to myself – and then suddenly he’s down again – up again – down again. Now I was irritated that some seventh grader is turning the closing hymn into his own little slapstick star turn. That’s when I finally noticed the leash and realized that the guy wasn’t just tripping and falling for fun – or for sheer clumsiness – but because he was being literally dragged along by a very strong sheep that appeared to be frantic to make its exit. It was hilarious- here was this middle schooler dressed as a shepherd being dragged around like a rag doll. In this case, the hay provided at least a bit of cushion and the kid wasn’t hurt – and seemed almost as amused by the situation as the congregation was.
Kate Barrow, the creator of this amazing program, was raised on a farm in southern Minnesota and grew up in a church which used live animals in its Christmas program – and she knew that doing this with a bunch of city slickers in the heart of Racine would be an amazing experience for all concerned. She also has a certain comfort level around animals – even when the cow has a rather formidable set of horns on its head and looks like it could do some serious damage both to pews and people if provoked. Kate just knows what to say or do to keep the animals calm and happy and somehow with her there it doesn’t seem particularly strange to have farm animals in our sanctuary. In fact, when we gather for worship next Sunday, the place will seem oddly empty and the service strangely plain.
pictured above: this was my view for most of the program –