A Christmas Play for Grownups
Minister: Tonight I invite you to imagine yourselves there that holy night, when a mother and father had their first child. We try to imagine what went through the minds and hearts of the parents of Jesus, in the months leading up to his birth.
Tonight we will read from scriptures written fifty years after Jesus died, by someone who did not know him. It is likely that the writer also imagined what that night must have been like, and told a story that gives us his image of that great man’s birth.
Tonight, to helps us imagine that night, two members of our congregation will imagine Mary and Joseph in later years, looking back at that time, the time of the coming of their first-born child.
This is an imagined conversation, based on what we know of the time, and also based on Christian traditions. It is based, most of all, on what we know about new parents and about first births. We begin with a reading from the gospel of Luke that takes us back to a time about nine months before the birth of Jesus.
Reading: Luke 1: 26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’
35The angel said to her, ‘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; he will be called Son of God.
36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’
38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Mary and Joseph Remember Part I
Mary: It began so strangely. First there was that … dream, do you remember, Joseph?
Joseph: I remember Mary, that dream you told me, the dream about the angel.
Mary: Yes, but you know, I’ve never been sure it was just a dream. It felt so real. I was so young, so innocent, and so confused. I did not know what was going on, did not know what was happening to my body, to me.
When I discovered I was with child, I was terrified. I was a teenager, pregnant, not married. It was not just a scandal, it was dangerous. According to our laws I could have been put to death for being pregnant and unmarried. If it had not been for the protection of a dear old friend, I don’t know what I would have done. Do you remember, Joseph?
Joseph: I remember, Mary. Your parents were so angry, and you were so very young, and so frightened. When you came to me and told me your troubles, I promised to marry you as soon as possible. I suggested you visit your good cousin Elizabeth. She was six months pregnant herself, though so old no one had thought it possible. I knew Elizabeth’s motherly heart would understand. I knew she would take you in no matter what. Do you remember, Mary?
Mary: I remember, Joseph. I left as soon as possible. Elizabeth knew right away that I was pregnant. She said that when she heard my voice the child in her belly leapt for joy.
My heart was so moved by her welcome that finally I felt my own joy at becoming a mother. Happiness filled my heart until an ancient song rose to my lips, the song that our ancestress Hannah sang at the birth of Samuel.
Introduction to the Offering
Reading: Luke 1: 46-55
Minister: In the gospel of Luke, the song of praise Mary speaks to her cousin Elizabeth is, indeed, based on the song of Hannah from the Jewish scriptures. Hannah was the mother of Samuel, a great prophet. Here is what Mary said, according to the gospel of Luke.
46 ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
Mary and Joseph Remember, part II
Mary: Oh, Joseph, what a miracle! Cousin Elizabeth wrapped her arms around me, and took me in, just as you said. Her husband Zechariah might have had something to say about my condition, if he’d been able to speak.
But he couldn’t because, as he explained later, the angel that had announced his son’s birth was angry at him and cursed him with muteness. Myself, I think he had been speechless with joy ever since Elizabeth told him she was expecting. Whatever the reason, Elizabeth and I didn’t mind his silence about my pregnancy.
Joseph: (laughs) You’ve always preferred a quiet man, haven’t you?
Mary: Yes, (smiles) I suppose that’s why I love you so much. It helps to have a quiet man around when one likes to give little speeches like my speech to Elizabeth. I stayed with her for three months, until I hoped it had all blown over, until I thought I could return home in peace. Do you remember, Joseph?
Joseph: Yes, I remember, Mary. It was a long time to be parted from you, my future bride and the love of my heart, but in the end your going away was a good thing. When you returned you were out of danger from the narrow-minded. So often in this life we long for peace, for the understanding of others, for kindness of heart.
Mary: That is true, Joseph. And it is true in every age, in every land in this great world of ours. If all people would reach out in love, we would all find peace.
Musical interlude or choral piece
Introduction of next hymn
Minister: It wasn’t just Mary and Joseph who where having a hard time back then. Jews in Israel had been suffering for centuries under the rule of foreign empires. Again and again the Jewish people had to fight those empires for the right to their beliefs, their religion.
They felt tired and defeated, they wrestled with despair. Through those long centuries, many must have felt that the Holy One had abandoned them. They longed to feel the presence of the Divine among them.
Though our circumstances are different, many of us have felt tired and defeated. Many of us have felt despair and longed for a Comforting Presence to be with us. Let us rise and sing together #225 O Come O Come Emmanuel, a song of longing for Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
Hymn 225 O Come O Come Emmanuel.
Luke 2: 1-5
Minister: The story from Luke’s gospel continues in this way:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
Mary and Joseph Remember, Part 3
Joseph: Even after your return, people were often cruel to you, and you were sometimes frightened about giving birth. Giving birth was a dangerous thing, in those days. So many women died.
When the decree came forth for us to go register, it was almost a relief to take you away from all the gossip, and to have time alone with you. I sang to you as we traveled, to lighten your spirits, and mine. Do you remember, Mary?
Mary: I remember, Joseph. You were so kind to me. And it’s true, it was a relief to be away from all those wagging tongues. But didn’t you worry, as well?
Joseph: Of course I did. My young fiancée so pregnant, the great distance, the dangerous roads, the threatening Roman guards. And it was in the bleak midwinter, so dark and so cold. It felt as thought we would never be warm again, as though the nights would keep growing longer and colder. Do you remember, Mary?
Mary: I remember, Joseph. So dark and so cold, so many years ago.
Choral piece or musical interlude
Reading: Luke 2:6-7 (as Minister reads, a young couple comes up and creates a tableau at the front of the church)
In Luke’s gospel, the story continues in this way:
While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In memory of that holy night, I invite you to rise and join in singing about that little town of Bethlehem.
Song: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Mary and Joseph Remember, part 4
Mary: I remember when we first caught sight of Bethlehem, I was so relieved! My labor pains had started, and I didn’t want to give birth on the side of the road. When we arrived, everything was so different from our hometown. We did not know anyone, and night was coming quickly. Every inn was full, and we’d walked so long I don’t know what hurt worse, my belly, my back, or my feet. Such pain, I had never felt before. Do you remember, Joseph?
Joseph: I remember, Mary. I thought your thin fingers would break my carpenter hands as you squeezed them during your pains. I remember the kindness of the last innkeeper, who allowed us to stay in the stable, made warm by the breathing of the animals. At least you were in from the weather, and we could have our baby alone and in peace. I did my best to make you comfortable. Do you remember, Mary?
Mary: I remember, Joseph, like it was yesterday. Such a mix of feelings went through my heart that night - fear, excitement, pain, and then the wonder of our tiny newborn baby. So small, I could hardly believe. I remember his pale, wrinkled old-man hands, his deep dark eyes, his tiny mouth. Do you remember, Joseph?
Joseph: I remember, Mary. I remember thinking no woman such as you had ever lived, and no child such as this had ever been born. I remember looking at him and thinking, what child is this, in Mary’s arms? Who will he become? What sort of man will he be?
Luke 2: 8-19
Minister: Luke continues the story, telling us what happened after this miraculous birth, telling us more of his vision of Jesus.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
Hymn 231 Angels We Have Heard on High
Let us raise our voices to join the chorus of angels.
Luke 2: 15- 19
Minister: Luke’s story continues.
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
Mary and Joseph Remember, Part 5
Joseph: This child, this precious child had come into our lives that night, there in that rough unexpected place, in the bleak midwinter. It was such a miracle I could have sworn I heard angels singing. And then those shepherds came to share in our joy. And they said they heard angels singing as well. Do you remember, Mary?
Mary: I remember, Joseph. I remember their kind faces, the milk they gave us, and the parenting advice they offered. Not that we followed any of their advice, we thought we knew everything there was to know about our child, even then. Do you remember, Joseph?
Joseph: I remember, Mary. Maybe my memory has been colored by time, or by what came after, but it seemed when I looked into our child’s deep dark eyes that night, I could see the wisdom and the courage he would have as a man. Do you remember, Mary?
Mary: I remember, Joseph, it’s not your imagination. His eyes held the wisdom of the ages, even as a newborn baby. His eyes held the wisdom he lived as a man – the wisdom of the prophets, the teachings, the Torah, but most of all the wisdom that comes from having a kind, understanding heart. I think he inherited his heart-wisdom from you, my dear.
Joseph: If that is so, then he must have inherited his courage from you. In my whole life I have never had the courage you had as a young girl. You faced your fears, you bore this child in such difficult circumstances, and you raised a wonderful, brave, wise, gentle son.
Mary: As I remember it, Joseph, so did you.
Introduction to choral response piece
Minister: Tonight we have journeyed back through time and space to imagine what it was like that holy night, the night of the birth of the great, wise, compassionate prophet Jesus.
If you have ever experienced the birth of a child, if you have ever held a newborn baby in your arms, you know the awe and the wonder of witnessing the beginning of a life. You know the holiness of that moment.
Sophia Lyons Fahs, a Unitarian religious educator, wrote that life is so precious that every night a child is born is a holy night. Tonight we will hear here words along with a sung response. The choir will lead the response, and once you learn it, feel free to join them in singing it.
1061 Each Night a Child is Born is a Holy Night
Special Music “O, Holy Night”
Worship Assistant: I who have knelt before no gods this year
Have sudden need to kneel me in the snow.
When round me like the rush of wings I hear
The midnight chimes and caroling, I know
I am not meant to live on cynic's dole,
To speak the mocking word, and wear disdain
As one who wears behind a mask a soul
As parched for beauty as a drought for rain.
Minister: I, who have lived insensible of loss,
Now kneel in wonderment of light that fills
A waiting world--from Bethlehem the cross,
And gentleness that walked forgotten hills. . .
How long ago: Ah, me! How dull we are!
How slow of heart, how blinded by a star!
Closing Hymn & Candle lighting Silent Night