One recent evening, after discovering that one of our children’s godfathers had never read Barbara Robinson’s children’s classic The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, my children wailed in protest. My oldest son ran to the bookshelf and proceeded to read the first chapter aloud to uproarious laughter around the dinner table. I rediscovered this short read from my childhood a couple of years ago, and my children were all hooked. It’s charming and comical, but it’s also one of the very best reminders of the shocking nature of the Christmas story.
The plot follows the unexpected participation of the Herdman children in the local church’s Christmas pageant. “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst children in the history of the world,” the book begins. They were practically feral and stayed busy bullying other kids and burning things down. They only showed up to Sunday School one morning because they heard there would be snacks, otherwise they never would have even heard of the annual Christmas pageant! Once they did, they were intrigued and threatened the other children not to volunteer for the lead roles so that they could have all the most important parts. When it becomes apparent to the pageant director that the Herdmans don’t even know the Christmas story, pageant rehearsals slow down to catch them up. We listen to the Gospel account with the Herdmans as if we’re hearing it, like them, for the first time.
For most of us, the Christmas story has become sanitized. It’s familiar and cozy. We forget that stables are dirty and cold and the hay probably wasn’t pristine—the fact that our Lady had to give birth to the Messiah in a lonely barn on a cold night loses its punch. Over time, we forget the scandal of the Incarnation. But the Herdmans have never been acquainted with a cleaned-up version of the Nativity. When the biblical account is read to them, they are absolutely floored. When Imogene Herdman hears that Mary and Joseph could find no room at the inn she responds, “My God! . . . Not even for Jesus?” Her language scandalizes the church people, but the real scandal, of course, is when we fail to be shocked by the Gospel. Imogene, the unchurched troublemaker, is the one responding appropriately.
The Herdmans ask questions the churchgoers never thought to ask, like what happened to terrible, egotistical King Herod, who was determined to murder the Christ Child? Surely, he got his due! The Herdmans are enraged that he may have died peacefully in his bed and suggest a grand finale for the pageant: the hanging of Herod! Their amended script is turned down, but they are right to be outraged by Herod’s crimes. And in the lead roles of the pageant, they unwittingly present a more accurate picture of Christ’s humanity than the scripted performances in years past. Not being familiar with portrayals of a meek and mild Mary passively holding Jesus in her arms, Imogene as Mary thumps her baby doll Jesus on the back as if she’s trying to relieve his colic. Anyone who has ever cared for a newborn knows that they don’t always sleep angelically in your arms—surely, Baby Jesus needed to be burped too, and Imogene is determined to do the job well.
When confronted by the Gospel, the Herdmans take it seriously. Imogene’s Mary looks ready to pummel anyone who might want to hurt her baby. She’s nonplussed that the wise men are bringing gifts that seem rather impractical. The Herdman boys playing the Magi bring something unusual to the scene instead of the props of gold, frankincense, and myrrh they were told to carry. They bring the ham their family was given in a charity basket. They drop the best thing they had to offer before Baby Jesus with a loud, inelegant thud.
The power of the Gospel has transformed the Herdmans, but not everyone is happy about it. Alice Wendleken, who until the Herdman takeover of the pageant was always chosen for Mary because “she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and, most of all, so holy-looking,” is furious that the Herdmans have interfered with the respectability of the pageant. When the pageant director has to explain to the Herdmans that “great with child” meant that Mary was pregnant, Alice comments peevishly, “I don’t think it’s very nice to say that Mary was pregnant.” She and many of the other churchgoers would like nothing better than for the Herdmans to never darken the doorway of the church (or smoke cigars in the church bathrooms!) ever again so that they can preserve a comfortable and clean version of the Gospel that will scandalize no one. Saints preserve us from reacting the same way.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever reminds us not only that the Incarnation is the most shocking story imaginable but also of the true purpose of the Church. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus reminds us, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Similarly, in her incredible novel In This House of Brede, Rumer Godden writes, “One of the good things about a Catholic church is that it isn’t respectable. . . . You can find anyone in it, from duchesses to whores, from tramps to kings.” This embrace of the unrespectable is a feature of the Catholic Church, not a bug. If we are a Church that shuns the problematic prodigal sons and seeks only to make the righteous older brothers comfortable, then we become a Church of Alice Wendlekens—a Church that forgets its call to evangelization and sees the Herdmans among us as problems rather than as the lost sheep the Shepherd is longing to bring home.
In sharing the Gospel with the Herdmans, the power of the Christmas story has done exactly what it is designed to do: shock the hearer out of complacency and self-satisfaction into new life. Blessed are the Herdmans, for they show us the proper response to the scandal of the Gospel: giving everything we have to Jesus—even if our very best is a charity-basket ham to thud at the feet of our loving Savior.