“People, Look East”

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“People, Look East” at Grace & St. Peter’s, Hamden, CT. The pageant was presented on the Sunday after Christmas after having been snowed out on Advent IV.

A new, revised, expanded edition of “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” The Sunday Paper’s collection of Christmas pageants, will be available as soon as I can get all the necessary renewals of the copyright permissions for the lyrics and music of the carols that are included in the scripts. Meanwhile, at this writing, there are still 6 copies left of the previous edition, at $22.95.  (The new edition will cost $30.00.)

The book’s Pageant #3, “People, Look East,” is the one that became an annual tradition in the parish where I worked for nearly thirty years. After my retirement from that position, my family and I joined a different congregation, and (after waiting a decent interval to get to know the parish) we introduced “People, Look East” there, and the good folks of this congregation have totally taken it into their hearts. In revising, updating and expanding my collection of pageant scripts, I am trying not to allow “People, Look East” to be The Tail That Wags the Dog, but it’s no secret that it’s the special one among the various scripts in the book. Here are some excerpts from the introductory notes to “People, Look East” in the forthcoming revised edition.

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Services of Lessons and Carols at Christmas date back to Victorian times, and have experienced a worldwide surge of popularity via the annual broadcasts of the Christmas Eve celebration at King’s College Chapel in England. In the Episcopal Church in the US, the Book of Occasional Services provides two outlines for lessons and carols—one for Christmas and one for Advent—which have had wide and increasing use on the parish level, often in combination with the Eucharist.

In a sense, the Service of Lessons and Carols is the “Easter Vigil” for Christmas: it provides the same slowly mounting anticipation, lesson by lesson, in the course of a patterned re-telling of the old, old stories of our past, and the old, old hopes for our future. When Lessons and Carols leads into a eucharistic liturgy, the parallel with the Easter Vigil is, of course, even more apparent; whereas the simple device of adding a visual element—miming the lessons as they are read, and supplying some very simple elements of scenery and visual props—essentially crosses Lessons and Carols with the Christmas pageant. Do all of these things at once—fuse Lessons and Carols, the Christmas pageant, and the Eucharist—and the result is a remarkably profound, evocative and effective liturgy.

The Book of Occasional Services provides two lists—one for Advent, one for Christmas—of suggested prophecies and Gospel narratives from which to choose up to nine lessons. For both occasions, the rubrics admonish that “the Lesson from the third chapter of Genesis is never omitted.” The mandate to open the pageant with the scene of Adam and Eve in the garden, then, immediately suggests the placement of a tree at the center of the stage area, hung with enticing red, green and golden balls—a Christmas tree, yet not a Christmas tree, because it is a fruit tree, not a pine. Also among the suggested lessons are several others that draw on the imagery of trees: Isaiah 11 with its “shoot from the stump of Jesse” and all the tradition of the Jesse tree that has accrued around it; and Baruch 5 (“The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command”). Many carols also echo these images. As lessons and carols move into Eucharist and a final prophecy from Revelation, the tree takes on additional meanings until ultimately it encompasses also the Tree of the Cross and the Tree of Life. There is no need to spell out its significance; it is simply put there and allowed to work on the children’s, and the congregation’s, imagination.

Similarly, the imagery of clothing emerges organically from the readings—the nakedness of Adam and Eve and their ignominious fig leaves; the reversal of this humiliation in the language of the reading from Baruch; the wrapping of the Christ child in swaddling cloths; the final prophecy in which the saints “wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life.”

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Adam and Eve stand before the congregation and are robed and crowned. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God. … “

“People, Look East,” therefore, is not a play or simply a Christmas pageant, but a liturgy. The liturgy is that of “Rite III” from the Book of Common Prayer; that is, it follows, with some minor rearrangements for practical reasons, the outline given on pages 400-401 of the Prayer Book. Its “pageant” elements are concentrated during the lessons and carols portion that comprises the liturgy of the word, but they are not limited to those parts of the service.

The inspiration for this fusion of pageant and liturgy grew out of a parish celebration developed by Sherrill Ellis and presented at St. Paul’s, New Haven, in 1983. To Sherry’s creativity we owe the basic concept of a pageant that comprises the whole liturgy; the idea of including adults as well as children; the idea of miming a series of Scripture lessons alternating with carols; the gathering of the people at the offertory; the children leading the prayers and vesting the table and the priest; and the figure of the Angel of the Lord (in Sherry’s script, the Star) who carries out God’s will by tossing glitter. Glittering memories are now embedded in the rugs in many a parish house and sanctuary. Thank you, Sherry, for starting it all.

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Part of the concept of this pageant as a “Rite III” liturgy is that the children participate by composing the prayers. The youngest children are assigned the post-communion prayer of thanksgiving; the oldest group writes the Eucharistic Prayer, and the middle group the Prayers of the People.

When you are putting on this pageant for the first time, you will probably choose not to attempt this aspect of the liturgy. But once “People, Look East” has become a tradition, and the children and their leaders have its language and images stored up in their memories, it is a powerful learning experience for them to draw on those memories to cast these prayers in their own words.

… A writing exercise always forces one to think; and the themes of the pageant will become much more immediate to your oldest kids if they are required by the demands of the rubrics on p. 402 to extract from the mass of material in the script, the particular terms in which they want to “praise God for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

We do not usually ask our Sunday School pupils to think in this way. Sunday School curriculum tends merely to reinforce their natural inclination to see the whole world in terms of their own daily lives and concerns and worries, using Bible stories primarily as sources of one-line morals (“be nice; be loving; be peaceful; Jesus loves you”). If you simply ask them to “write a Eucharistic prayer” and leave them alone to try it, the end result will probably consist almost entirely of expressions of penitence (even of self-loathing) for war, pollution, racism, drugs, inequality, poverty and violence. The assignment to “praise God for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ our Lord” may represent the first time, for most of them, that they are asked to approach the scriptural story of salvation history—consciously, intellectually—as something that relates to their own lives, rather than mere “churchy” backdrop that is experienced in the liturgy but never tied into the real concerns we bring before God when we pray and struggle with our daily questions, hopes, and worries.

Being asked to use these stories themselves, looking to Scripture as a source of images for talking to God about us, can offer them a whole new set of resources—of pieces to assemble as part of the puzzle—for their work of integrating the different elements of their lives: themselves, their peers and families, their worries about the real world and growing up; their experience of story, fairy tale, and myth; of pop culture, TV, video games, fantasy and adventure; their experience of Bible, Sunday school, Christian community and sacrament.

The youngest children work together to write the post-communion prayer of thanksgiving. There is no way to induce children this age to come up with a prayer that focuses on giving thanks for the Bread and Wine, or for the birth of Jesus as our Savior. Ask them to suggest words for thanking God, keep reminding them of the sacrament and the season, and be prepared for them to say the darnedest things. An adult will need to organize the children’s ideas into a form that the priest can read aloud with a straight face, but a certain amount of childlike originality adds a delightful zest to the final moments of the liturgy.

If it is not practicable to have the children write these prayers, consider having a group of them bake the communion bread, or contribute in some other tangible way to the liturgy of the table. In the parish where I now worship, the Rector invites the Pageant People, gathered around the table, to mimic her gestures as she blesses the bread and wine. The effect is extraordinary: the intensity of the children’s concentration, and the openness and solemnity of their faces, are a spiritual gift to the rest of us.

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If you have children among your Pageant People who have not previously been communicants, this might be an extremely meaningful, if rather unconventional, occasion for their first Communion. The script’s direction that all the Pageant People, clustered around the altar, receive Communion before the rest of the congregation, does not fit well into a parish setting where the youngest children normally receive only a blessing. The process of preparing the pageant, if it were granted a more leisurely rehearsal schedule, could become a very effective device for an exploration into the structure and meaning of our Eucharistic worship. Further, the fellowship that builds up among a group of people—adults and children—engaged in a common enterprise that is demanding, deeply meaningful, and fun, would provide a wonderful model of Christian community as the context for a first-Communion experience.

© 2016 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.  Photos by Karl Wildman.

(Below: the rector’s toddler kidnaps Baby Jesus during the final reading by the Angel of the Lord.)

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