In praise of excessive effort for Easter and Christmas visitors

by Donald Schell

From our very first Lent in 1979 when St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco only had about a dozen members we poured heroic, unreasonable effort into producing a liturgically rich, inviting Easter Vigil. And then we put word out to friends. Clergy and laity from congregations that didn’t do a vigil came. Parishioners’ friends who wouldn’t think of going to a regular church service came because their friend had a part in the service or had helped decorate the worship space with flowers and fabrics. From that painfully short-handed beginning we found pleasure in sharing the huge work of creating a powerful, highly participatory Easter Vigil for a larger circle than our Sunday-by-Sunday congregation.

After the first year, we also saw we had to make huge organizational and planning effort for the next year or we wouldn’t be able to build and sustain a vigil tradition.

With each succeeding year we learned by deliberate reflection after the Vigil (gathering input from all participant leaders) and year by year refined our planning, task definitions, and ways of working together. The work on Easter Vigil gradually transformed our effectiveness year round for the specific ways we learned –

– how to mobilize volunteers early,

– how to form and sustain a unified vision,

– how to share out responsibility,

– how to develop responsive and redundant channels of communication among work groups,

In producing our biggest annual liturgical event as we learned to welcome and fully include strangers and old friends, we also developed skills and a culture around building community, sharing authority, and working together.

Within four or five years as our little congregation reached forty people a Sunday, we were hosting a two and a half hour long Easter Vigil for a hundred and fifty. Our unreasonable investment of ourselves in producing the Vigil made something radiant, timeless and transforming. And we pushed our own edge on sharing leadership – key players included liturgical deacons and lay assistants, the choir, a welcoming team, those handling childcare in/during the liturgy, food preparers, our all volunteer catering staff, readers and their coaches, flower and light arrangers and planners, special supplies procurers, and more.

About five years after our first Easter Vigil, we began to build a Christmas Pageant tradition. The congregation’s happy memories and general good feelings for the annual Easter excess (and all the creativity it unleashed, learning it brought us, and satisfaction in sharing something beautiful and holy with our visitors) set our course.

Though the production process grew directly from our work on the Vigil, the Christmas Eve Eucharist, from the beginning the Christmas Eve Pageant and Eucharist drew on a different liturgical inspiration from our Easter Vigil.

For our Vigil, we borrowed extensively from the traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, adding our own new music setting of ancient Christian texts and trying to build practice from the best hints we could gather of earliest church and early Byzantine practices. The vigil was a swirl of light in darkness that grew and grew as the evening progressed from the one light emerging into a dark church to light the many hand candles adults and children held expectantly, through patient listening to many scriptures punctuated with deep silence and congregational song, until the congregation bore their candlelight in procession outdoors and around the church led by incense and many Ethiopian crosses, pounding on the great doors that opened majestically as the congregation danced and drummed into the church singing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” Before the Eucharistic Prayer and after we’d received communion, we taught and danced carols, sung hymns, especially to the great texts that John Mason Neale wrote from the Great Easter Canon of John of Damascus.

The Easter Vigil was born from Russian stock. Our Christmas Pageant tradition looked West and at classic Anglican ancestry. Our starting vision was the medieval shepherds plays in the cycles of Mystery Plays, and we grafted our version of a shepherd’s play back into the liturgy.

In 1985 when we began preparations for our first Christmas Eve Pageant Liturgy, were other congregations remaking a Christmas liturgy that way? We didn’t know of any. None of us had yet seen the Pageant serve as the first half of a principal liturgy.

What united our congregation’s Christmas and Easter efforts held in common was that a huge proportion of the congregation joyfully joined wholeheartedly into an excessive effort to make something beautiful together for God and for our visitors, and that we kept learning in new ways that the unreasonable investment of time had, in the end, Thirty years later, both continue to thrive. The congregation has grown to a typical Sunday attendance in the 150-200 range, and 350 or so people attend Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve liturgies. And from the regular congregation’s perspective, adults and children who have never had a leadership responsibility find a place to invest their creative gifts. People work hard side by side. New friendships are formed in the congregation. We have production conflicts and work them through. We have that satisfaction that only comes from doing something worth doing generously and whole-heartedly with others.

In my twenty-six years as a founder and rector at St. Gregory’s, I directed or co-directed the Pageant about twenty times. My wife usually took a producer/stage manager role. I had the privilege of co-directing with professional actors, one of whom became a very good friend. As a pastor, I found particular joy in taking on the new role of director and addressing the children in the congregation as “our actors” and helping them see that we were entrusting them with telling their family, friends, and visiting strangers the story people longed to hear. We pushed them to learn their lines and coached them to use BIG (not “loud”) voices so the church would resonate with lines they were learning and learning to speak from the heart.

When I started working full-time for All Saints Company in 2006, we offered our first Christmas Pageant workshop, bringing together pageant planners from congregations around the San Francisco Bay Area. From the beginning we noticed two kinds of producer/directors, people who were delighted to imagine what they’d be starting in a few months, and people who deer-in-the-headlights terrified and wondering why they’d consented to produce their parish’s pageant. It was a productive mix of experience and expectations because we wanted to share new possibilities in making a pageant and invite everyone (including frightened beginners) into the deep experience of working together and caring for each other that a pageant can offer a congregation.

We’ve offered the pageant workshop annually since then, sometimes twice a year. This September must have been about our tenth daylong pageant workshop. This year ten people from four congregations responded to the invitation we put out to our diocese and beyond. We were

two full-time lay professionals from two of our diocese’s most richly resourced congregations,

one professional actor (with whom I frequently co-directed the pageants),

one priest and Christian educator who was a professional dancer before she was ordained,

a Brazilian priest who pastors a bi-lingual Latino and English congregation with very, very limited resources and a number of undocumented adult members who are working two or more jobs,

the deacon from that congregation,

an adult from their English-language liturgy,

two Latino youth from their Spanish language liturgy, and

my wife and me.

We set to work at 9 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m. Our day began with singing and then we took time to listen as each of us told our own stories of Christmas Pageants we’d been in or seen and what other Christmas traditions we remembered from growing up (and from our old home in other countries). We laughed and groaned and fell silent and smiled at the great mix of joyful and awkward and occasionally painful stories we shared.

Then we sketched a common hope and vision from hearing everyone’s reasons for making a pageant in their congregation.

Our Brazilian colleague and the others from his congregation described how much they’d discovered of the Mexican (and other Spanish-speaking Latin American) traditions of Las Posadas and La Pastorela. Last year after our workshop he’d asked them if they wanted to do a Posadas, and they were overjoyed and insisted on the whole nine days with the complete ritual (songs, door to door, gathering each night) for every night. After that their Christmas Eve Pageant was improvised on Christmas Eve with everyone in the congregation taking a part.

One of the Latino young people talked about how much Christmas reminded her of the border that separated herself and her mother from her father and other sister in Mexico.

Our professional actor talked about English Christmas-time Pantomimes and the old tradition of the Mystery plays in her native England.

Again working together, we discovered how much of the story we held among us by brainstorming the elements of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and then together making a narrative outline for how we were going to tell the story that day. We listed scenes and characters and assigned ourselves roles and for the next thirty minutes or so, we improvised a pageant with no audience but the Holy Spirit.

And before lunch, we did “table readings” of scenes from a couple of different scripts (including a bi-lingual one) and talked about what kind of script or pageant would fit our congregation and who we’d seek to play what parts.

After lunch we taught the group some actors’ body and vocal warm-ups we’d used at St. Gregory’s with our inter-generational cast. We talked together about pitfalls and remembered production snafus we’d seen and pastoral dilemmas that we’d experienced in productions and how to resolve them, and we helped one another imagine solutions to dilemmas it looked like any of us might face producing this year’s pageant.

We shared experience about the logistics of scheduling rehearsals like planning to begin the schedule with rehearsals for just the bigger speaking parts and as Christmas drew nearer, to plan subsequent rehearsals to include smaller speaking parts until a final rehearsal would include large choirs of angels and herds of sheep (prepares leaders to fold in even more at the last minute). And we talked about enrolling parents’ full support for children’s participation and about steady, efficient communication with cast and production team.

Then our theater company for the day chose another scene from Matthew, the Magi showing up in Herod’s Court, a we’d not included in our improvised pageant. Everyone (including first-time actors) was eager to explore a tense and conflicted scene through improvisation.

And we finished the day as we’d begun it, singing together.

Together we’d made note of things we’d done together in the workshop that we planned to take home and try with our own congregation. We had encouraged and inspired one another.

By now we know what these producers of fifteen to twenty minute liturgical dramas will hear in response from people in their congregation –

– I’ve discovered that I have creativity to offer.

– This has transformed our families (or our congregation’s) experience of Christmas.

– We’ve never seen our children and our adults working together like this.

Sometimes it’s important in a congregation’s life to be economical in the investment of people’s time. Sometimes it’s valuable to do things simply. Sometimes cutting the effort and stress is the most faithful decision. But sometimes, the big effort, the excessive investment of energy, finding the people who are willing and able to invest themselves in a collaborative project for hours in order to make an inviting offering to God and God’s people (including a lot of strangers) surprises us by the grace it offers and the fresh energy and joy that gathers around it. Sometimes excessive effort is formational and transformational. Sometimes it builds the community and prepares us for Gospel welcome as nothing else can.

After the first year it gets easier and easier to gather committed volunteers. But the bigger discovery is in the grace of this making. In planning, in rehearsals and finally on Christmas Eve, all the relationship work they’ll done, all the effort to get children to sustain focus on the onstage interaction and to share what they were doing with a full church, all the effort to give the actors confidence in their voices and trust that the congregation hopes for something simple and true and powerful from them, it will work. And as it works, the congregation will experience the Incarnational miracle firsthand. As Angelus Silesius wrote in the seventeenth century, “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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