A tale of two Christmas pageants: Bethlehem’s angels and General Washington’s weary soldiers

“Wow! Someday I want to be in that Christmas pageant too! I wanna play the part of Joseph, or one of those kings bearing gifts, or a shepherd hearing from angels!” That's what I said as a small child thrilled with the wonderful sights and sounds of the big Christmas pageant at our church school.

But it didn't turn out quite like I had wanted. Each year those main character parts were handed out to others, and my role was to simply sing in the children’s choir—a group of small white-shirted messengers of God, proclaiming the birth of a Savior named Jesus. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved singing, but wouldn’t it have been neat to wear a shiny crown and a colorful robe as one of the wise men from the East bearing gifts for the newborn King?

Finally one year I landed a speaking part (seven whole words!), but instead of the regular pageant with angels and wise men and shepherds, this time it was for a most unusual little production. We enacted parts of the true story of Christmas Eve 1776, and I was to play a cold, frightened foot-soldier in General George Washington’s Continental army, huddled near a campfire along the banks of the Delaware River, being readied to cross on Christmas day and fight the Hessians in Trenton. The war had not been going well, and Washington knew his rag-tag army (and the colonies as a whole) were losing hope amid deteriorating conditions and discouraging losses, and a victory was badly needed.

So orders were given for a daring Christmas Day crossing of the river and a December 26 surprise attack on the Hessians. There would be no marching music for this secret mission, and instead of instruments, army musicians were handed muskets. So as a common soldier huddling with others near a campfire, fearing for life and limb, and thinking of families back home, with heavy winds and sleet and snow soon making the crossing all the more treacherous, the script called for this shivering soldier to pronounce loudly with more desperation than confidence, “peace will come, it has to come!”

But for those frightened men, peace and victory were not a sure thing, and as sentry lines were formed, the password “Victory or Death” spoke more of danger than certainty. Peace, ultimate victory and final freedom seemed more a distant dream than reality. For various reasons, two of the three columns in the planned attack did not end up crossing the river, so Washington's contingent alone was left to accomplish the difficult crossing and he had far fewer fighting men for the battle than anticipated. Still they were victorious, and it is said that in some ways this victory was the beginning of the future final victory for the colonies.

Seems quite a different Christmas Eve pageant than one with heavenly angel choirs praising God and announcing “glad tidings of great joy” and “peace on earth” to surprised shepherds learning of the surprising birth of Jesus to a young maiden named Mary. But there are important similarities too.

For the human participants around the birth of Jesus (Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Simeon, Anna, wise men from the East), the surprising miraculous events were not of their own doing—were not done by their own power or might, but by the Spirit of God, and with dreams and heavenly messengers sent from God. And for as wondrous as it all was, it was also puzzling, mysterious, and dangerous. And while it meant that the promised blessing—the Messiah—was theirs, it also meant a future filled with difficulties, trials, and not a little pondering what was happening around them. Mary and Joseph did not hear heavenly hosts singing around them at the manger, but according to the story were left to believe what shepherds told them they had seen and heard on the nearby hillsides. Later, Herod had numerous babies put to death! What did Mary and Joseph think about this? The 'Wise Men' who came to worship the young King were told that for their own safety they had to travel home another way, and Mary and Joseph were warned they needed to flee to Egypt. No smooth sailing. Simeon told Mary “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Playing the part of a common soldier in 1776 facing a dangerous and uncertain future, and a challenging situation that was bigger than any one individual, I was told that peace would eventually come, and that no matter how bleak things looked, or how many losses there had been, we could look to a surprising and unexplainable victory once we had, along with the courageous General Washington, moved closer to freedom in crossing to the other side--even while others had refused or turned back.

It is all too easy to be discouraged and frightened by the very real things we see and experience. But we should not lose heart. The Lord Almighty points to accomplishments made not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Ultimate freedom and victory is given to the weak, the lowly, the poor, the bound, and the oppressed.

In the midst of our trials and suffering we may be too frightened and weak to sing, or to even hear the music around us, but the Spirit groans as we share in Christ’s sufferings. But though we may not be able to hear the music of heaven, Jesus and the angels are actually singing over us, and ultimately the music will break through. We are led toward victory and freedom by the One who is pictured as riding a white horse—overthrowing kings and rulers who resist.

We are invited to be His People—People of the Promise. The Lord has acted in His Freedom to make himself present and known to us, and to set the entire Cosmos free—a universe groaning for its change to come. We belong to the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings—the risen and ascended Son of God and Son of Man born in Bethlehem, and who holds us close to himself in his flesh for as long as forever is. And by the Spirit and as adopted children of the Father, we get to sing with angels and pray through the Son to our Father.

“Said the King to the people everywhere, listen to what I say. Pray for peace, people everywhere. Listen to what I say. The child, the child, sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light” [from Do You Hear What I Hear, by Noel Regney and Gloria Baker].