What a tiny Christmas shepherd can teach us about our Holy Week selves

By Danielle Tumminio
Posted Apr 2, 2012
Danielle Tumminio

Danielle Tumminio

[Episcopal News Service] I recently read a sermon by Laurie Haller about a large Christmas pageant where four-year olds put on the manger scene. To help the toddler actors find their spots, the teacher covered the stage with tiny chalk crosses to mark the locations where the children were supposed to stand. But there was one problem: the youngsters never practiced in costume, which meant the teacher didn’t account for the angels.

Twenty cherubim and seraphim floated onto the stage, their costumes gossamer and willowy, their wings big — very, very big.

As they stood on their crosses, in that charming, angelic way, twenty little shepherds emerged, only they couldn’t find their places, because the angel wings hovered above their crosses and prevented their standing on them.

All of this got just a little too infuriating for one small shepherd, who caught the eye of his teacher behind the curtain and yelled — and please excuse my language here—”Because of these damn angels, I can’t find the cross!” (Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, 1990, 49-50).

Ironically, those angels kept that little boy from adopting his new identity — from becoming a shepherd awed by Jesus’ birth. So he lost his temper. But he knew what God meant for him to become, and he spoke up, because he must have known that following God is important, even, one might argue, worth an occasional explicative.

As faithful Christians worldwide approach Holy Week, we meet many individuals who encounter obstacles when it comes to adopting a new identity in Christ. Judas, for instance, was offered a chance to become one of the founders of the church, one of Christianity’s most historic disciples, but he ultimately forsook his role as a Jesus-follower because his loyalty lay with 30 silver coins.

Peter, unlike Judas, ultimately accepted a new identity in Christ. That new identity might be best symbolized by the new name Jesus gave him—Peter, which comes from the Greek word for rock. Peter, Jesus said, would become the rock on which the church would be built.

Yet Peter struggled with his new identity. He made mistakes, including the three times he denied Jesus. Yet he ultimately accepted his calling, and he stayed to watch Jesus’ sufferings until the very end. Then he became the foundation of the church, just as Jesus said he would be.

Peter, like the boy at the Christmas pageant, had to stand at the cross to become the person he was meant to be, even if it meant sacrificing joy, even if it meant pushing aside something joyous and beautiful, like an angel.

We too are asked to stay throughout the temptations of Lent and the anguish of Holy Week in order to receive a new life in Christ. As it was for Peter and the shepherd, there may be complications; we may want to run and hide. We may, like Judas, even want to betray the one who is ever loyal to us.

And yet, we are asked to remain, to sit with Jesus on Maundy Thursday, to hear the story of his death on Good Friday. Why? So that we too may be transformed, resurrected in this life and the mysterious one ahead, to become people of God.

Laurie Haller didn’t give any details beyond the moment when that little shepherd uttered a profanity, so I never learned how the story ended. I never found out whether the little boy found his cross, whether he stood on it proudly or left the stage annoyed. But my faith tells me this: that some angels moved and made room for him, and he stood, firm-footed on that cross, and held his staff straight and tall. Then he smiled at his parents because that’s what people of God do. They work hard to grow into the identity God intends for them.

And then they rejoice.

— The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of God and Harry Potter at Yale. She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.


Comments (1)

  1. Rev. Margaret Hodgkins says:

    Thanks Danielle for this beautiful meditation in Holy Week.

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