First Saturday of Advent (Year B)
Advent Meditation by Dana Foote
a story of how the Grace Church Christmas Pageant came to be – and how it has been my personal preparation for the coming of Christ during the Advent season.
I cherish the Advent season which is why, when Julia and James asked if I would write an Advent reflection for today, I responded with sure enthusiasm – but when I pondered over the 3 readings for today from Ezekiel, psalm 85, and Mark, I struggled to find a connection and sat at my computer staring at the screen, physically stuck. Advent. I repeated the word over and over. I thought of our beloved hymns like, Come thou long expected Jesus, Rejoice Rejoice Believers, Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending and O Come, O Come Emmanuel. And, of course, who doesn’t think about John the baptist during Advent? Our treasured rogue character in the wilderness, preparing the way for God’s son to come into the world! In the Mark reading, we have the chief priests, the scribes and the elders giving Jesus some lip essentially saying: “Who gave you the authority to boss us around, big shot?” We know that Jesus was doing the work of His heavenly father there, but I was struggling with how does this passage relate to Advent? I wrote to Don and Julia to tell them about my writer’s block and mentioned how baffled I was – how on earth can they write sermons every week? Don wrote back and told me not to fret. Why don’t I write about my deep connection to the Pageant and how it prepares me for Christmas?, he said.
The Pageant. My passion project! Don was right, it has been my work with the Pageant of Grace Church that has given me that invaluable time to prepare for the coming of Christ! Advent is simply taking the time each day, starting December 1, to prepare for Christmas.
If you are a cradled Episcopalian like me, you might have been raised in a family that actually waited until Christmas day to place the infant baby Jesus in the arms of Mary on your nativity creche, because these weeks before Christmas are a time of waiting, of preparing for the coming of Christ into the world. Even though we are scurrying around decorating trees, sending out cards, wrapping gifts, and preparing for Christmas giving, shouldn’t we wait to place the infant Jesus in the nativity until his delivery date? He’s not here yet! (Well, of course, He is here) but let’s just say that these four Sundays in Advent are precious days we are given to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus Christ in His earthly flesh in the form of an infant, born in a lowly stable barn in Bethlehem. Advent is a time of waiting, watching, and listening. It is also a time of hope, peace, light, and joy. This infant baby Jesus who is coming is the light of the world – GET READY!
The weeks leading up to Christmas and preparing for the pageant has always been a source of joy for me. Please indulge me for a moment here and allow me to tell you a little background as to WHY I love the Christmas pageant so much and WHY it is a precious gift of Advent (and Christmas!) season for me.
My spiritual home before Grace was Christ & Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT, the town where I grew up. There, I was introduced to the love of Jesus through Sunday School, my youth group, my confirmation class, and many other church activities – but it was mainly through Christ & Holy Trinity’s Christmas Pageant that I grew to fully understand the true meaning of Christmas as a young child and began to develop my own relationship with Christ from there. Children’s ministries became my passion when I had my own children and this is why I decided to “take on” the Grace Church Christmas Pageant in 1998 when Lucy was 21 months old and Dustin only 3 – and I remained devoted to it for 17 years until I “retired” in 2015. The pageant had always been my way of preparing for Christmas – waiting to tell and retell this beloved story of the coming of Christ to that little town of Bethlehem – on Christmas Eve at Grace Church.
I created the pageant that you have been seeing for the past 22 years from my childhood memory of the Christ & Holy Trinity Pageant experience. It was much simpler at C&HT, but we held “torches” and ran down the aisle for “Bring your torches, Janette Isabella”. We sang “The Friendly Beasts” (I was the cow in 4th grade – it was the role of a lifetime!) We sang “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” after the narrator proclaimed “And Suddenly, there was with the angels a multitude of the Heavenly Host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill toward men”. But, the most noteworthy piece that I plucked from the Christ & Holy Trinity Pageant was “Mary’s Song”. I had remembered this song in my head and heart all those years and often found myself humming it around Christmastime because it was such a moving and beautiful remembrance of my early years in the church. If you haven’t seen the Grace pageant, this song is truly a special, heightened moment of the pageant where Mary sings a lullaby to her newborn baby. (This year, the role of Mary will be played by Maeve Cannon and, let me tell you: you’re in for a treat!). In this lullaby, Mary sings:
Mother her vigil is keeping, hush little babe to her song
Rest there secure in thy sleeping, grow thee more stately and strong
Slumber, slumber, gently thine eyelids close
Slumber, slumber, cradled in sweet repose.
Babe of my bosom be winging, softly where dreamlands begin
Christmas Eve bells are a ringing, festively calling thee in.
Cling, Clang, Cling Clang, dear little babe divine
Cling, Clang, Cling, Clang, dear little babe of mine.
There I was, excitedly facing the challenge of inventing a new pageant for Grace Church in the fall of 1998. I knew I would include those elements like Villagers running down the church aisles with torches for Janette Isabella, and of course, we’d have the Friendly Beasts, and of course, we’d have the 3 kings and of course, Luke Chapter 2 (King James Version!) intertwined with all the music. But when I went searching for “Mary’s Song”, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It wasn’t at Carl Fischer Music. It wasn’t at Sam Ash. I called Christ and Holy Trinity’s music office. They scoured through their entire music library and archives and could not find it. It wasn’t on any Christmas recordings of any kind. It didn’t exist.* So, luckily I have a musician for a husband and Sherm helped me clunk it out on the piano from my memory. He wrote out the notes and transferred them onto sheet music. I thank God for holding this song in my brain because I believe it remains the cornerstone of the Pageant to this day. The pageant morphed and changed as the years went on: I added an opening piece from the Messiah, The Star Carol (thanks to Dr. Allen for introducing me to that other GEM of the pageant!), The Little Drummer Boy, O Holy Night, an angel dance, a Head Angel procession, and I even had to write new lyrics and add verses to Away in a Manger, the Friendly Beasts, and the Coventry Carol to accommodate an ever-growing cast eager to sing solos, duets, and trios. Over the years, the Grace Pageant has grown to be a beloved event at Christmas for hundreds of children and families at Grace and we have had many alums who return year after year to narrate, sing, run the lights or usher. The Pageant is a place where our children at Grace Church will begin to truly understand the hope of the season and the true meaning of Christmas through the words of Luke and through the many carols and hymns that we sing. To me, having a child discover Christ through a Christmas Pageant is the first step in building our beloved Christian community at Grace Church and beyond. We prepare for this special event all throughout the Advent season!
The pageant is how I personally prepared for the coming of Christ year after year. (I can’t speak about the pageant without mentioning that I had sensational partners with me along the way, like Alistair Martin-Smith, Mary Connelly, and Shannon Cave!) Now, the Pageant is in the very capable hands of the spectacular Michelle Choo and Adrienne Goldthorpe and they have reimagined the pageant this year so that, YES, our children, too, can prepare for the coming of Christ. These children are experiencing the true meaning of Christmas while telling the story of the birth of Jesus – even amidst this pandemic! It’s magic. Julia and the pageant directors have graciously welcomed me back from my retirement to help coordinate any alums who want to participate in the pageant – but this year they invited me to help out with the pre-recording of the children singing their parts and narrating in the church. Then! I was able to work alongside my son, Dustin, (fun fact: our very first “Little Drummer Boy”) who is now editing the footage that Adrienne’s brother-in-law, Jeffrey Brown, shot in the early weeks of November and it will be live streamed on Christmas Eve for all to enjoy. The Pageant will look different and somewhat condensed this year, but it will be a Christmas treat nonetheless – please tune in on Christmas Eve!
I am grateful for the Advent season to allow me the time for stillness and prayer. The time to wait, to watch, to listen. To prepare me for the coming of God’s greatest gift, His Son, the infant baby Jesus who is the light of the world!
Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs
With His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are
With young. (Isaiah 40:11)
Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and
He will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He
Is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls
FOOTE NOTE RE: “Mary’s Song”
*Mother her Vigil is Keeping, Norwegian by Albert J. Lange
I did eventually, recently (!) find the song on the great wide internet! D’oh. Still a good story tho, right?