I was standing in the darkness under a watery street light with a small groups of onlookers, watching the familiar characters from a familiar story take their places at the manger among the straw. The people playing them were no less familiar to us watching than the characters they were playing. Members of the parish, our friends and neighbors and our children. Angels, wearing donuts of glittering Christmas tree garland on their heads and oak-tag cut out wings on their backs. The church organist wearing on his head one of the blue bath towels I brought from home, clutching the rope tether of an alpaca in one hand and a stick he found in the woods, a makeshift shepherd's staff, in the other. Beside him is a member of the parish council, dressed in an old choir robe, carrying an empty shoebox wrapped in gold paper and wearing a one-size-fits-all foil crown from Party Depot.
They file in slowly from the shadows along the path from the fellowship hall where they dressed. As they make their way to the lit manger, you can hear the tittering laughter as neighbors, wives, husbands, even grandparents are recognized and exposed for who they are.
'Look at you!"
"Oh man, I just gotta get a picture of this."
As they step into the light though, something happens. The transformation is remarkable. That's Mary, cradling the baby followed by Joseph, carefully stepping through the straw, gently guiding Mary by her elbow to her seat on a hay bale. The little angels are exactly that, hovering close to Mary, intensely interested in the baby, whose bright eyes peer out from the blankets with an irresistible beneficence.
There is something like silence that runs through the onlookers like electricity. I lower my camera for a moment, captured by the scene and startled at the tear the has come to my eye. No one around me says a word, as the characters settle in to their places and look out at us, beaming.
I think it was the vulnerability of the moment that was suddenly heartrending. Familiar people just like us standing there in outlandish costumes proclaiming the presence of God, in all the places where the world is not quite right. Where life has been pieced together from left over parts and has not turned out the way we planned. God standing with people who carry on the best they can in circumstances not of their choosing.
This is what that holy night was all about all along. It wasn't about the people who sat comfortably in the inn, eating and drinking in front of a roaring fire. It wasn't about those who had their life together, captains of their own destiny who cavalierly shape the world and the people in it according to their own whims and desires to this very day.
It was about those who are mostly forgotten and overlooked. Who pass through this world invisibly and who bear the world's grief silently. It was about those who will be alone, whose heart will ache, who have nowhere else to be on a dark night but out in the barn. Who travel great distances chasing the star of their dreams only to arrive at a stable.
It was about how God continues to enter our lives from the shadows of our vulnerabilities and disappointments. Calls us to stand in a little circle of light in the midst of a vast darkness, dressed in a bath towel and carrying a stick we found in the woods, to say that God is still here, where God has always been. Standing with us in the broken places of our world. In the very places where we need God the most.