Last night my husband and I went out into the December night, headed down to a busy avenue in my city. We parked on a dark street, walking past a church and a Mexican restaurant until we saw the bright lights of the theatre: our destination. We got got our tickets and waited in the lobby, munching cookies and listening to a small ensemble play some impromptu Christmas carols. Then, finally, a voice called those with the "red tickets" and we were told to follow our guides back out into the street, to an "undisclosed location", which turned out to be a restaurant across the street, which also housed a small stage.
Walking by the window of the restaurant, we spied a few small girls dressed up in white dresses with wings attached to their backs. They were getting ready for the play.
The first act: the annunciation, preceded by songs. Mary, surrounded by small angels, is approached by the angel Gabriel, who reminded of the Ghost of Christmas future: wraithlike, tall, imposing, with a face like a crescent moon. Mary bowed before Gabriel in obedient awe, and afterwards she and Elizabeth meet, and Mary gets a gift: her mask. There is an announcement of the census; everyone has to return to the place of their ancestors. The procession begins.
The second act: we exit the building and round the corner into another small building where there is a small puppet theatre and a few rows of wooden blocks. There, Joseph dreams, and worries about Mary, and about whether he can care for her and for the baby. He worries about the journey, and everything that will be required of him. The angel Gabriel leaves him a message written on a scrap of paper: "You Can Do it!" the procession continues.
(while we are crossing the street, stopping traffic, one man shouts from his car that we are "ruining the environment", perhaps because his car is idling more than it should. Are we disturbing the peace?)
Now we are at the theatre, where the shepherds are "watching" their sheep (i.e. in the midst of heavy snoring). Small children enter, carrying stars. They surround the sleeping shepherds while the angel choir/army gathers in the back of the theatre, ready to startle the shepherds awake. After they sing their announcement and prepare to journey to Bethlehem, a great star appears, and three greater-than-life-size puppet Kings enter in search of a child. They meet a sinister and worried Herod, who pretends that he too, wants to worship the child.
Now we are out on the street, with Mary and Joseph and the donkey, all following the star. There is the sound of a chorus from the heavenly choir, a hum that rises and stays with us as we walk in the cold and dark night. We see the bright lights at a neighborhood house and approach, but its occupant refuses to shelter us.
So we continue to walk and sing, following the Holy Family, following the lowly family seeking shelter. We continue to walk until again we meet Herod, blocking our way, telling us we cannot come in, we are not welcome. The hum goes up from the crowd again: one note that we all sound together. And then the banner: "We come seeking shelter" which all of us shout. Herod tells us that we are not welcome, that we should go home, that he will not let us pass.
We stand in the cold. But the hum goes up. "We come seeking shelter!" we shout.
Meanwhile, I see another banner approaching, from the other side of the blocked road. The sign shouts "Bienvenido", and as it comes closes the blockade comes down and we are able to keep walking and singing in the darkness. Someone gives me a cup with a small candle. We all walk holding lighted candles. When they go out, we scurry to re-light them.
We are on our way to the church, the sanctuary.
Inside, it is warm, and there is more singing. The star and the lowly family enter, along with angels and shepherds, and stranger and wonderful animals. There are bird puppets flying and a white dove flies and the child appears, and we are all invited to dance. We are all invited to dance and sing and join the fiesta.
And what I remember is walking in the dark, and how the story unfolded, and the yearning and the joy in the songs. What I remember is the darkness, and being out on the street, in the cold, but walking together, shouting, "We come seeking shelter!" What I remember is the lowliness of the holy family, how they processed slowly, how they were turned away. And I wondered: if we truly followed him, out on the street, where people can see, if we truly followed him, would we be turned away more often?
I am still not sure what I experienced last night. Was it a worship service or a performance? Or was it a demonstration? We were out in public, walking the streets, shouting "We come seeking shelter!" just as surely as others, earlier in the day, had shouted, "No peace! No Justice!" For a little while we walked the streets, cold, homeless, seeking welcome, seeking shelter.
"Bienvenido!" was the sign. It was a sign from God, the lowly God, the one who walks the streets, the homeless one who provides shelter, the disturber-of-the-peace who is our only peace.
Meanwhile, come Lord Jesus. Give us courage to join the procession out on the streets, to be rejected and turned away, to be disciples of the lowly God, our only hope, our only peace, in the darkness.