A few years ago I became aware of a church in Texas that pulls out all the stops in celebrating Christmas.
For over 25 years, Northside Baptist Church in Victoria, Texas, has hosted an elaborate Christmas play. This presentation has everything: shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus and even animals. In fact, for a number of years, the church rented a live camel for the magi characters to lead into the sanctuary.
At some point the cost of camel rentals went through the roof. Church leaders calculated that for what it would cost to rent a camel for two years they could buy one. So, being good stewards of the Lord’s money, the church bought a camel. Her name is Lucy.
It’s a pretty good life for the camel. Lucy is only called on to perform four or five days each year. In the off-season, she lives on a ranch owned by one of the members of the church. Her upkeep is minimal – she eats hay and grass. And her life expectancy is 40 to 50 years. Obviously the church will save a fortune in camel rentals over the next half-century.
I keep picturing Lucy lolling around green pastures, chewing her cud, waiting for those four or five days a year when she gets to be a star. I wonder if she misses the cheers and applause when she is not performing. I wonder if it bothers her that her part of the Gospel story spends most of its time offstage.
Or course, that’s sort of the way it is for the rest of cast. Jesus, Joseph and Mary are probably boxed away in some musty closet. The wise men and shepherds are shuffled off to an obscurity more dire than even their enigmatic biblical roles. The manger, hay and other animals for rent are carted off, penned and stored, waiting patiently for the annual Advent of our Savior.
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I worry that it is not only cast and props that are boxed and put away. Along with the visuals of Christmas, I worry that the message is also pushed aside.
During Christmas we sing the words “peace on earth.” After all, it is the birth of the “Prince of Peace” we are celebrating. We also gather and deliver food and clothing to the poor. All of this to honor the child king who so cherishes “the least of these” as his own.
But when Christmas is over, we don’t talk much about peace. As we wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan, talking about peace is deemed unpatriotic. And “the least of these” that we were so concerned about before Christmas become the last ones we think about as we resume our regular routines and rituals.
I worry that the meaning of Christmas, like Lucy the camel, is something we trot out for a brief performance once a year, but after that, it’s back to the pasture.
For Christians, the meaning of the season should be center stage every day. And if that means bringing Lucy into the sanctuary every Sunday so that message is alive and vibrant in our lives, what’s wrong with that?
Besides, where’s the fun in owning a camel if you hardly ever use it?
James L. Evans serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.