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This Year's Christmas Play

[On each Sunday in Advent this year, I am sharing some of my favorite Christmas columns from the past 25 years. This is the second of four.]

It is the season of wonder, after all. And, so, I have been wondering. Wondering how long it takes to decorate that huge tree at Rockefeller Center. Wondering how a person is supposed to learn all four verses of any particular Christmas carol now that school music programs are “holiday” performances. Wondering how our little planet looks from the satellite that takes the photos for Google Earth when all the houses in all the cities and towns across America have their Christmas lights turned on.

But mostly I’ve been wondering who I am in this year’s Christmas play.

One year I got to be an angel, but that was only because there were only two blonde girls in our Sunday School class and the script called for three. I don’t remember ever getting to be Mary, gazing beatifically at the baby doll wrapped in a flannel blanket and lying in a what somebody thought looked like a manger filled with a variety of hay that would never have existed in Bethlehem. (Directors, even when they are elementary school teachers, tend to type-cast and meek and mild has never been my strength.) Usually, I was the narrator, the one with the words.

Which makes it interesting that this year the character I’m feeling an awful lot like is Zechariah. Pious and proper, wise and mature, he’s the one who couldn’t bring himself to believe in a miracle and got struck speechless as a result.

Maybe it’s just because I’m tired. Lots of time on the road, away from home, and the negotiation of more traffic and social conventions that I’d like is a slow but steady drain. Maybe it’s because, in the last few weeks, a lot of people whose mortality I’d managed to ignore have become seriously ill or died. Nothing like a thinning of the generational cushion between oneself and ultimate vulnerability to give one pause. Or, maybe, like Zechariah, it’s because I’ve been paying too much attention to the acting and not enough to the experiencing.

Put on the priestly robes. Check. Walk respectfully into the sanctuary. Check. Light the incense. Check. Get out of there and go home.

Mail the Christmas letter. Check. Hang the wreath on the front door. Check. Get the gifts bought and wrapped and delivered and the parties attended and the hostesses thanked and ...

Poor Zechariah. Doing exactly what he is supposed to do. Following all the rules. And he gets interrupted by an angel who offers him a miracle. But, because it doesn’t fit into what he knows, what he expects, what everybody waiting in the temple courtyard knows and expects, he doubts and, because he doubts, his ability to tell the story is taken away.

Poor me. Doing exactly what I am supposed to do. Following all the rules. Have I been interrupted by the offer of a miracle and doubted? Is that why I’m feeling speechless in this holiest of seasons?

Like most miracle tales, Zechariah’s doesn’t end in silence, but in cries of joy and shouts of laughter. The angel’s promise materializes. An impossible thing is made real. And, finally, Zechariah gets to tell his story.

A story made better by the building tension of imposed silence. A story made more compelling by the passage of time. A story made timeless by the knitting of skeptical and miraculous, human and divine, earth and sky.

This year I am Zechariah. I am lighting the incense and listening for the whisper of an angel. And I will be silent until the time for telling the story comes.

Copyright 2012, 2021

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