Monday, December 22, 2003

Passion (Part I)

I went to what I thought was a Christmas party Saturday night. The person who invited me called it a “Shepherds’ Party” and said there would be music, some readings from the bible (the story of Jesus’ birth), and then a light supper. Oh yes, and people would come dressed up like shepherds but that my husband and I did not have to do that if we didn’t want to. At first I wanted to say no but since I usually shy away from anything new I decided this time I would just jump in and said yes.

It wasn’t until my husband and I walked into a large room full of people (the majority of them dressed like shepherds in simple robes with ropes tied around their middles, Arab type head coverings, and sandals) sitting in chairs placed against three of the walls, each person holding a small candle, that I started thinking that coming to this thing might have been a bad idea. My husband and I had been given two small candles when we first came in and we each held one as we sat down in the last two empty chairs. As we sat down a man my husband knew ask him where his shepherd clothes were. My husband replied, “The Sheriff confiscated them after that sheep incident.” Fortunately, the man laughed. Everyone’s attention then turned to the other end of the room where a large Christmas tree stood in one corner with life size statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and two kneeling shepherds standing beside it. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were arranged around baby Jesus in his manger. In front of the tree stood a harp and two music stands.

The daughter of our hostess got up and went over to the harp and started playing. She played two pieces, neither one familiar to me, and they both sounded beautiful. After she finished a women (dressed as a shepherd) got up and sang a hymn about Jesus, again unfamiliar to me, to a recording of a chorus singing the same song. Then a young man (dressed as a shepherd) got up, lit his candle and touched it to the candle of the person sitting next to him and that person lit the candle of the person next to her and in that way all the candles everyone held were lit. When all the candles were burning the young man started reading lines from the bible. He read the story that told of the prophecy of the coming of Jesus. When he finished another woman (dressed as an angel) got up and did an interpretive dance to a recording of another song about Jesus.

That is when I realized we had been invited to a Christmas Pageant, the kind of amateur production that you used to see in grade school or in smaller churches. I wondered what my husband was thinking about this and later he said 30% of his thoughts were on memories of this kind of thing from his childhood while the other 70% of his brain was thinking, “Kill me, kill me now.” Which was interesting, since 30% of my thoughts were focused on the thought, “What have I gotten the two of us into?,” while the other 70% of my brain was thinking, “Kill me, kill me now.”

As I sat there feeling caught and cynical about the whole thing I thought, why? Why am I so threatened by all this? These are just people who want to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ and the beginning of their religion. They are doing it in what I, in my cynical view of religion, think is an over-the-top sappy way but who am I to judge? I decided to relax and go with the flow.

After the young man’s reading, another older man got up and sang another song about Jesus, again not familiar to me, again to a recording of a chorus singing the same song. When he finished the young man stood up again and read the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the arrival of the three kings. Right before he started reading three men in the audience got up and left the room only to return after the young man stopped talking to reenact the arrival of the three kings bearing gifts for the Christ child. They walked across the room and placed their gifts in front of the statue of baby Jesus in the manger and then left.

At this time the most enjoyable thing for me that evening happened. The hostess’ daughter played the harp again, along with her young son who played the violin. They played two pieces together, one being Angles We Have Heard On High, and the sound of the harp and violin blended together beautifully. Next, the boy played Away In The Manger, which was my favorite Christmas song when I was a child. After that, the young man got up again and finished his readings with the story of Herod’s search for the Christ child and Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt. Then the woman dressed as an angel did an interpretive dance about this story. The entertainment ended with the other woman singing another song I have never heard, which I think was called Emanuel. At the end she amused me by calling out, “Everyone join in,” and I was surprised when almost everyone did.

Finally, it was over and I was surprised to learn it wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. In fact it was kind of sweet in all its awkwardness. I admired these people for being brave enough and comfortable enough to show how much they believed in their religion. Then everything got weird. Our hostess asked us to take turns standing up to tell everyone what we were blessed with and what we were giving back to Jesus to show that we were thankful that he gave it to us.

It started with a person about six seats away from me. He stood up with a lit candle and said how he was blessed and what he was giving back to Jesus in return. Then he handed the lit candle to the person sitting next to him and that person started talking. I was so freaked out by this charge from our hostess that I did not hear what people were saying until the man sitting two seats away from me started talking. He said he was blessed with a new life since he took Jesus into his heart 30 years before and he was giving this new life back to Jesus. He then passed the candle on to the woman sitting next to me. Crap, I’m next. What do I say? That I don’t want to play? That this is to weird for me? That I'll pass?

The woman next to me passed me the candle and in a trance I stood up and with my eyes focused only on the candle flame I heard myself say, “I give back the joy and wonder that Christmas brings to me.” Then I sat down and quickly passed the candle to my husband. He stood, said, “Peace on earth,” and sat down. The man always does better under pressure than me.

Now that I was no longer under pressure I sat and listened to the other people in the room speak. As I listened I got more and more uncomfortable with what I was hearing. More people giving their life to Jesus, people giving their souls to Jesus, one person gave his body, while another gave her grandchildren. These people were giving what they loved the most to Jesus; their own lives, their souls, their bodies, even other people. And their faces were glowing as they did it-it was damn creepy. At first I thought they were saying these things because they loved Jesus and what he represents. Then it hit me. These people didn’t love Jesus the way a child loves his or her father; they were in love with Jesus. They were passionate in their belief and passion has always scared me. It is the cause of most of the trouble in the world.

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