Several years ago a church I was serving as an interim had a Live Nativity. Various members of the congregation, units of family or friends, signed up for 2 hour shifts each evening the week before Christmas. The United Methodist Women were in charge of serving cider and donuts in the Fellowship Hall. I was in charge of wardrobe. There was a long rack with robes of various sizes and colors. Brown burlap for the shepherds, shiny bronze for the wise men, white for the angels, a couple of soft blue robes in different sizes for the various women who would be playing Mary over the next few days. Around the clothing rack were arranged several boxes marked “Shepherds,” “Wise men,” and “angels.” In them were shepherd headgear, gold spray- painted cardboard crowns, halos and wings. Next to them was a box marked “Holy Family.” It contained Joseph and Mary’s headgear and swaddling clothes for the baby doll.
It was 4 pm on Christmas Eve. I was overseeing the 4-6 pm shift. The Christmas Eve Family Service started at 5:00. A family came through the door, a dad, 2 little boys, grandparents, a couple of older teens, maybe cousins. All the cast I needed except Mary. I greeted them, learned their names and gave them brief instructions: stand still and look reverent. Then I invited them to look through the robes and find one that was the right length. “My wife will be here soon,” the husband told me. A few moments later our Mary arrived. The family looked uncomfortably as their mother/wife/daughter; a pretty woman in her mid 30’s who hadn’t combed her hair, walked unsteadily into the room. “The Holy Family Box is over here” I said. “Holy Family! That’s a laugh,” she said. She sat on the floor and started pulling Mary headdresses out of the box. “What is all this #@$*?” she demanded. I can’t wear any of this #@*%!” She stood up and went over to the rack and started going through the angel costumes. “Why are these robes all white? I can’t wear white!”
I walked over to help her and caught the reek of alcohol. “You don’t think I’m good enough to play Mary, do you, preacher?” she demanded, putting her face near mine. “Nobody is,” I said, “but we can’t have a Nativity Scene without a Mary. There’s coffee over there. Go get a cup while I pick out your costume.”
I admit, my own needs took precedence over her Christmas crisis in that moment. I was in no mood for incarnational listening. I was in no mood for a discussion of justification by grace through faith. I just needed her to put her robe and headdress on and hold the doll for 2 hours. She was all I had. I instructed one of the shepherds to hold her elbow to steady her if need be and sent them all out into the churchyard to stand around the manger with a mental note to follow up after Christmas. For now, I had a service to run and a sermon to preach.
Only later, after all three services were over and I was on my way home did the full irony of my drunk Mary occur to me. And, though I’m not a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, I do know the “Hail Mary,” the traditional biblical prayer based on Luke 1:28-35; 42-48, asking for the intercession of Mary the mother of Jesus. “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray
for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
On the way home after the midnight service, I prayed a Hail Mary for my drunk, angry Mary.
I prayed for all the not so holy Families and all the not good enough people this Christmas.
In 1531 Martin Luther wrote the words to a Christmas carol known in German as ‘Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her’ (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”) for his five-year old son Hans. It is the words spoken by an angel to all the troubled people of earth.
From Heaven above to earth I come,
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing.
To you, this night, is born a Child
Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This little Child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all your earth.
’Tis Christ our God, who far on high
Had heard your sad and bitter cry;
Himself will your Salvation be,
Himself from sin will make you free.