My favorite Christmas pageant moment in recent years took place at Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx, when one of the most nurturing second-grade Josephs I’ve ever seen took the baby Jesus off Mary’s hands and gazed lovingly at him for an entire song, as if he knew that just like mothers of newborns everywhere, even the Mother of God could use a break.
It is just one of many fun, unexpected moments I remember from the Christmas pageants that are so central to many schools’ traditions this time of year—you know, when versatile and intrepid teachers guide students in the time-honored combo of singing, dancing, and recreating one of the central moments of Christian belief.
Of course, like many things this year, it’s not going to be the same. Middle schoolers from St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland, for example, typically enact multiple scenes from the Christmas story, and students travel from classroom to classroom experiencing a living Nativity. They’ll do it via Zoom this year. Sacred Heart in the Bronx is moving from its typical church-packed musical extravaganza to a week of quieter but still fun themed dress days and activities, a sort of Christmas spirit week. And St. Charles Borromeo has opted for a tree lighting ceremony, among other observances.
I’m guessing that the next time we return to the tradition of crowding into overheated gymnatoriums, with scores of parents jockeying for the best spot to take a video, we’ll find it wonderfully, strangely normal.
This year, though, most schools and families are having to adapt or do without some of the traditions that mark this season. Before we all do our best to make the most of all the Christmas moments we’ll have, it’s worth taking a moment to recognize how this Christmas departs from our expectations. Because if the Biblical story of Christmas is about anything, it is a story about things not going the way you expect.
For a start, political forces out of their control forced Joseph and Mary to manage the birth of the Son of Man, their own son, while they were away from home on a trip. They adapted a feeding trough for animals just to have a place to put the baby. While they look calm and adoring in most nativity scenes, there’s not conclusive Biblical evidence to suggest Mary felt great about delivering a baby in a barn without another female relative to help, or that Joseph didn’t panic for a moment when he realized that as a new husband and father—called by God to this responsibility, no less—he couldn’t even get his family a room in an inn; the best he could do for them was a drafty spot that smelled of manure.
To top it all off, they ended up as refugees within days, as King Herod came after the family. And that villain was one of few who even picked up on Jesus’ significance; most of the faithful were oblivious, because they were expecting the Messiah to be a king, a mighty conqueror of their foes—not a peasant baby.
So as Christians, we believe that God came to us unexpectedly, in the middle of a mess, in undignified surroundings—and still does. As helpful as traditions are, if we are truly to prepare our hearts for Emmanuel—God with us—then we need to be open for the unpredictable. As Pope Francis notes, routines can become habits that make “our hearts grow numb.” Francis also makes clear, “Something deep within us invites us to rejoice and tells us not to settle for placebos which always keep us comfortable.”
This Christmas season is uncomfortable for many of us. Perhaps that will help it come into our hearts with unusual impact this year. And just like our schools, may we each find new ways to rejoice.
Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.