Text: Luke 2: 1-20

One of the joys of being the Moderator of the United Church of Canada is touring about the country, visiting local congregations in tiny hamlets as well as larger centres. In his term as moderator -- which is a few years ago now-- Peter Short, tells of getting in on a whole number of Christmas pageants --these dramatic productions of the Christmas story that are usually organized by adults, acted by children. [1]

He recalls one pageant that stands out from all the others.
“Entering the church on a brilliant December morning, I could see right away, he says, “that the sanctuary had undergone pageant transformation. Stained glass windows were covered with garbage bags to keep out the light so you could read the text on the screen. A coat hanger wrapped in silver garland hung high on the wall behind the pulpit - this was the star. Battery powered candles in tall brass candelabras stood about the chancel. Here and there I caught glimpses of small people in bathrobes, disappearing around corners. Dads could be seen leaning against the side walls, camcorders at the ready. The congregation buzzed with the expectancy that is the preamble to these things.

The adult choir opened with a spirited rendition of Prepare ye the way of the Lord. That was the last we saw of that choir. The rest of the morning would belong to choirs of angels and to all the children about to take up their roles in a very adult drama.

The pageant was proceeding famously. The shepherds appeared on cue. The wise men (which included some girls in their number) arrived bearing gifts. There was the Innkeeper. Joseph was a strong capable 12 year old. He vowed to protect Mary from all danger. Mary, a little younger, told Joseph she loved him. She didn’t even giggle. She was strong and capable too.

By the fifth scene it was time for the angel to announce to the shepherds that there would be a holy birth. A seven year old girl angel popped up from her hiding place behind the pulpit -- white gown, sparkly halo, wide grin. She looked out at the sea of adult faces, her eyes grew wide, a look of terror swept across her face and she disappeared behind the pulpit.

There is a long pause. Everyone is quiet. Negotiations behind the pulpit. We wait.

Eventually a woman stands up behind the pulpit where she has been hiding too. It is clear she that she is one of the moms who coach and prompt and make costumes and dry tears. She is wearing a black turtleneck sweater. “We have a case of stage fright,” she tells us. “I’ll be the angel - the black angel.”

Then she speaks the words that the angel must say for the drama to proceed. “Do not be afraid. See, I bring you good news of great joy.” These are words the 7 year-old would have said had she not been overcome by the moment. The black angel says the words because she has to say them in order to keep things going. The shepherds must receive their instructions to go to Bethlehem. The show must go on. Other children are waiting expectantly, not to mention the dads with camcorders.

When spoken by the black angel, I hear the words as I have never heard them before, though I’ve heard them a thousand times and know them by heart. “Good news of great joy.” The same words conferred upon me through the years by an array of angels in white gowns and sparkly crowns and a tooth-missing smile. “Don’t be afraid … great joy … for all people … born this day … a Saviour.”

Something is different about the words this time. It is just so odd to hear the black angel saying these things. She is, after all, an adult. Surely she must know about the sham and the drudgery and the broken dreams of the world in which she finds herself an unlikely herald. Surely she knows of the exhaustion and hopelessness that overwhelms us. Surely she is aware that the world to which she announces the good news of a Saviour is the very same planet that is sick to death with global warming, endless warring. “Great joy … for all the people … born this day …”
Out of the mouths of babes the words have a certain sentimental appeal. But this is one of the black angels, one of the adults who know. One of us.

"Here’s what I’m saying to you this Christmas," Peter says to us:
"as you watch and listen to the story and think your own odd thoughts, you will know the meaning when you become the black angel. You will know the meaning when life sets you suddenly on the stage and bids you to say what you never in your wildest dreams thought you’d hear yourself saying -- as if it were some other voice, some older, deeper, wilder voice. You will know the meaning when, in spite of all you’ve seen, you become the bearer of joy.

Yes, you can bear joy and you must, because this is God’s world and all the teeming, reeling life that this world contains is God’s pageant. All the tragic and beautiful life that this world lives is gathered up in God’s pageant, and when an angel misses her cue, you must step up to your part. The show must go on. Somehow it will not be complete without you: you the bearer of joy. God alone knows why the word is to be conceived and brought to birth by the likes of you - the black angel.

It is clear to me now why we always give this profoundly demanding drama to the children to act out; give it to them while they still have the capacity for wonder. Give it to them before they drink too deep of the broken dreams. Give it to them while the heart is young, while they still sing as they skip on the sidewalk and still dream as they climb the tree. Give it to them because we have lost something of ourselves: good news of great joy.

Did you know that joy is not a mood? A mood is something you may have, but joy is something you can only belong to.
Joy is not a good mood. It is a good truth: a truth that lies deep in the heart of things. And what is the truth that lies at the heart of Christmas?
Out of love for the whole creation, God chooses to come close.
Out of love for the whole creation, God chooses to risk everything to join us, to live in our skin, so that nothing, not a thing - can separate us from the love of God. That’s the mystery we behold … this wondrous expression of God with us … through everything … in birth, in life, in our fear and in our freedom, in the joy of the wedding feast and in the pain of betrayal … in our dying and in our rising to unimagined life again. This child born to Mary becomes flesh and blood like all the rest of us children of the womb in order to find and make his place in each place and amidst every circumstance we know and will come to know in our own brief lives.

This is the joy that claims us … this is the joy we belong to.
This is the joy that is folded like a garment placed by a loving hand at the bottom of the drawer that is your soul. Joy is the strange knowledge that in spite of all we have become and failed to become, we are forever joined to Christ who shows us a whole new way of being human together, and works a great miracle of newness in us and through us, in this world God so loves.

We don’t have to make joy happen. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. Joy has been given. It is already true. Who will reach into the bottom of the drawer and bring it forth? The black angel. When you live from this truth, you become the black angel. Whatever else we have made of Christmas, this is what Christmas makes of us: bearers of joy -- to the world.

[1]  thanks to Peter Short for his Christmas Message "The Black Angel" printed in the Observer, December 2004.