I am happy to report that the St. Mary’s Christmas Pageant hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years.
The old-fashioned pageant box once again holds senior girls in tableaux, showing-and-telling the greatest of stories – the birth of the baby that changed the world.
Serious second and third grade choristers march hand-in-hand up the long church aisle, heads erect and hair brushed, to take their place on this chancel and embrace its history, rich and long. These white-robed songsters sing the same songs their sisters sang, and their sisters, year after year, following in the footsteps of St. Mary’s women before them.
Did the Sisters of St. Mary’s Constance and Hughetta teach little girls these songs in their moments, just before the yellow fever came and so many of them died?
Did they sing these words even then, in the midst of such troubles?
Sing Hallelujah, Brothers, Sing Hallelujah, Sisters / Worship the Jesus Child and praise His Mother mild / Glory to God on high, the angel hosts above are singing / Listen to the story of the Jesus Child.
I think they must have. It’s an old song, an even older story that we remember.
I stand near two boy-babies this year, fine boys with fine strong names, Davidson and Teddy. Life brand-new overwhelms. As girl-children sing songs about the Mother and her newborn Son, both of these new-boys sleep, nestled in the confident arms of aunts and mothers. They wake and look, listen wide-eyed to the angel voices, and then rest again, at peace, no crying they make. Bright boys who will grow into strong men, who will know of troubles (because there are always troubles), but who will know more of love.
Just like Mary’s little boy. We will tell them His story, for it is our great hope.
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, they call His name Emmanuel.
I look over the heads of the new-boys to see my good friend Orion standing at the back of the church, watching, long arms by his sides. He stands tall among freshman faces, girls who do not know him, girls he’s never taught. Orion and I have taught together for many years – he Math, me English – unlikely friends, we.
Orion watches the pageant with fresh eyes this year, for he is quite ill. The tumor won’t stop growing and the doctor says his days are short. I ask him what it feels like to know your days are short, and he says, Weird. I ask him if he is afraid, and he says he is not.
Orion’s eyes look forward with great intensity at the pageant. His senior students stand in the old-fashioned tableaux box, clad as shepherds and kings and the blessed Mother (seven Mary’s this year!) – the way St. Mary’s girls have done it for many many years, and the way they will do it for many many more. This pageant and its story transcend time, but not memory.
What a gift is memory! Could it be the best earthly gift? Memory softens things while also intensifying them, it expands through time and gives the past an emotional beauty too grand for the present.
A gift richer than gold and frankincense, God gives us memory so we might have flowers in December.
Orion stands pensive; he is remembering, I think. I know he is watching the tableaux and listening to the beauty of the hundred-voice angel choir, but I think he’s really watching Nancy, and remembering. Orion’s wife Nancy is the pageant’s inimitable choral director. From my standpoint on the north wall just beside the pillar, I watch her as she directs – such energy, this one, like none other, actually. She stands erect, strong of arms and voice, and leads her child-choir, her glorious smile content in this moment. Perfect articulation, perfect harmonies – a few fine moments so beauty-filled one must weep, for what else can we do. This day she seems able to set aside the weight she bears, the heaviness of her husband’s sickness, and she leads us to worship.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Orion slowly makes his way forward to the front of the church. When students and alumnae spot him, he is swarmed with admirers, young and old. Former students want him to see their babies and meet their boyfriends. He is papa to so many children; they adore him. This year’s math seniors gave him the tie he wears, made from a picture of them all at Derby Day, muddy and grinning. Orion sports this tie every time he makes it up to school. It seems some girl or another is always giving me a gift or a card to take to Orion’s house, and they all say the same thing ~
Mr. Miller ~ I love you.
So. The pageant is over and girls go back to class. Life goes on, as we all say when there’s nothing else to say. Orion finds Nancy and gives her a gentle kiss and tells her what a fine job she did on this year’s pageant. Somehow this pageant is a bit different for me – more special, more vibrant, more intense than most. Perhaps it is the man standing in the back, reminding me about beauty, to look for it, to seek it and to find it. The glory of living each day well, the only real message.
Orion and Nancy walk slowly down the aisle toward the door, hand-in-hand, like always. I will remember this.
For to see love given and received is the gift, glorious and perfect. Just like the Baby was, and is.
So today we sing Glory Hallelujah, even in the midst of troubles. We sing it today, loud like the second graders who lead us. I sing it for Davidson and for Teddy. I sing it for Nancy.
And I sing it for Orion. And remember.
Hallelujah, Glory Hallelujah – Our hope forevermore.
Photos by (the fabulous) Lisa Buser