Sermon 12/29/2013

Categories: Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Other Story

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“Now after they, the Magi, had left, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you otherwise. Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” — Matthew 2:13.

I had a friend, a member of the laity, a woman in her early 20s, who was put in charge of patching a Christmas Pageant together at a church in a metropolitan area. As is true in a lot of churches today, this was not a pageant just for children. A broad range of age groups were to be included in the cast— all ages— adults and children.

In this particular church happened to be very, very few children between the ages of say 3 or 4 and 11 or 12. Often this age group would be seen as prime candidates to populate these productions.

On the other hand, there were a lot of what we sometimes and quite loosely call youth— ages 13 through 17. Further complicating matters, there were about 8 boys and one girl.

My friend, being very organized, had obtained a script from some religious publisher. And that script relied heavily on quotes from Scripture, not necessarily a bad thing. But that’s where the trouble started.

In this case, that script relied on the King James Version of the story as we find it in Luke. The Twelfth Verse of the Second Chapter in Luke turned out to be quite problematic.

For those of you who, off the top of your head, cannot bring the Twelfth Verse of the Second Chapter of Luke in the King James translation immediately to mind, let me refresh your memory. The angel says to the shepherds (quote:) “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (Slight pause.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What’s the problem?” The problem was teenage boys. Or more accurately, since I do not want to condemn all teen age boys as a group (I was, after all, a teen age boy once), the problem was one teen age boy.

The oldest among the aforementioned boys, their ring leader, a natural cut up, had been cast as the angel, precisely because he was the ring leader. The first time the youngster read through that twelfth verse, this is what it sounded like: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe…” Oh, wow! There’s a babe in this play. Is the babe an angel too?” And then he laughed and he laughed and he laughed. (Slight pause.)

That is when my friend decided the one girl present would read the part. And she decided none of the boys would have a speaking roles in this pageant. (Slight pause.)

We do find these words in the work known as Matthew: “Now after they, the Magi, had left, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you otherwise. Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” (Slight pause.)

I have another story of a Christmas pageant gone amuck. This one concerns a large Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The pastor felt fortunate that a professional actor, a young lady all of twelve years old who had already appeared in two Broadway plays, was available to play the part of Mary.

The young actor was given the script. So she went home to study it. This script included, as many pageant scripts do, the arrival of the Magi. Of course, it conflated, merged the Luke version and the Matthew version of the story— two very different stories.

Now, just like many other pageant scripts, it did not include what happened after the Magi arrived, everything you heard in today’s reading. It left out the fact that Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt and Herod slays all the children under two.

Now, the young actor who had been assigned the part of Mary decided she needed to consult the source material, the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and even looked at some commentaries for background. After all, she was a professional actor. That is what professional actors do. They research the part.

Having read the Gospels and some of what is said about them, she made an appointment with the pastor. When she came in she demanded to know why the script left out some important details. She had a whole list. I’ll mention two.

The shepherds were terrified when they angel appeared. The script did not say that. She also demanded to know why the script said nothing about Herod sending the palace guard out to kill all the children under two. (Slight pause.)

I need to be clear. I am not recommending churches suspend Christmas pageants. I am suggesting we do need to be clear that what we find in Scripture is not what we find in Christmas pageants.

Indeed, when we read portions of the Second Chapter of Luke on Christmas Eve, this introductory comment is made. (Quote:) “Our culture fails to recognize the announcement is not meant as a pastoral tale, but is meant as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah that the birth of the Messiah will be announced to the poor and the outcast. The shepherds, in this era, would have been counted among the lowest of the low on the cultural ladder” (unquote).

Further, as must be clear to you, especially given the reading from Matthew, one of the things Scripture strives to deal with— one of the things Scripture strives to do— is to deal with reality. Indeed, earlier we heard The Coventry Carol.

As the write up about the carol in the bulletin says, it was a part of The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. [1] The pageant in which this carol was presented dates from at least as early as the Fifteen Hundreds, the Sixteenth Century. Historians are fairly confident it was performed for Henry the VIII— this pageant.

And this play did depict— did depict— the part of the Christmas story from Chapter Two in the Matthew. The carol, itself, clearly refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, as it is called. In short, the generation alive in the Sixteenth Century was dealing with the real issues this passage presents, perhaps more so than our so called modern society.

All of which leaves us with a key question: if we look at the message underlying the angels in Luke and the message underlying today’s reading, both of those messages— as we theater people might say, the sub-text in those messages— are about reality. So what conclusion can be drawn from that?

What conclusion can be drawn about the reality that Scripture, itself, addresses? (Slight pause.) God cares. God cares about human pain and human suffering in this world, right now. (Slight pause.)

There is one more conclusion which can be drawn from the two very different nativity stories: God is real. The birth of Jesus is retold in the Gospels to send us that one unmistakable message. God… is… real. (Slight pause.)

You see, I think one of our problems, especially in modern times, is we have actually trouble with the concept of the reality of God. So, for some reason, we find it easier to transform the reality of these stories into something which, perhaps, feels like magic.

In its own way, that substitution of magic denies a singular and basic truth about God. God seeks justice. God seeks equity and through justice and equity God seeks peace and joy and hope and love.

Jesus, you see, represents the true light of God. The true light of this God who seeks justice and equity and peace and joy and hope and love. And Jesus has come into the world to illuminate this truth, this reality, this light that God does, in fact, seek justice, equity, peace, joy, love.

All of which is to say God invites us to engage in the real world with all of its trials and all of its challenges. And God also reminds us with the birth of Jesus that the presence of God is with us always as we strive to engage the world.

God walks with us. God guides us. Dare I say it— God is still speaking to us. And I believe my friends, that this is a reality which we should not deny. Amen.

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said:
“Churches more liturgical than ours celebrate The Feast of the Holy Innocents sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The Gospel from that Second Chapter of Matthew is read. Episcopal Theologian Diana Bass recently said this in reference to that feast (quote): ‘The Feast of Holy Innocents is always disturbing. The powers of this world want to destroy the Light; those who deny the justice and love of God seek to end the reality of light in its infancy.’”

BENEDICTION: Hear now this blessing from the words of the Prophet Isaiah in the 60th chapter (Isaiah 60:19-20a): The sun shall no longer be / your light by day, / nor for / brightness shall the moon / give you light by night; / for Yahweh, God, will be your everlasting light, / and your glory. / Amen.

[1] This was the write up in the bulletin.


The Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors.

The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed.

The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play.

It is notable as a well-known example of a Picardy Third (the use of a major chord of the tonic at the end of a musical section that is either modal or in a minor key). The composer of the carol is unknown.

The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is sometimes sung a cappella.

The only manuscript copy of that text to have survived into recent times was destroyed by a fire in 1875. Hence, our knowledge of the original lyric is based on two very poor quality transcriptions from the early nineteenth century. As a consequence, there is considerable doubt about many of the words.

Indeed, it can be difficult to make sense of some of the transcribed words. For example, in the last verse “And ever morne and may For thi parting Neither say nor singe” is not clear.

Various modern editors have made different attempts to make sense of the words, so such variations may be found as “ever mourn and say,” “every morn and day,” “ever mourn and sigh.” The following is one attempted reconstruction.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

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