This evening I’d like to tell you a story. I posted a written version on the website several years ago, but I’ve never actually told the story, and this seems a good night to do so. It takes place close to twenty-five years ago, when I was working as the chaplain at Marymound, a residential treatment centre for adolescent girls run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Quite newly ordained, the six years I spent at Marymound were incredibly formative for me. Among other things, I had to learn some things about what really matters in ministry; about what is foundational, and what is merely peripheral.
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Sunday by Sunday I would lead a chapel service, generally attended by about twenty people. There’d be a few staff, one or two of the Sisters, and about fifteen of the girls from the residential units. A few of the girls came with some church background, though for most of them this Christianity stuff was all pretty new. And given that they were in a secure treatment centre, it won’t surprise you to hear that these girls were rather… complicated. Some were angry, some shut down and defensive; a good number placed somewhere along the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum, some were facing addictions of their own; many had been terribly abused as children; each girl in her own way was quite deeply wounded. I learned very quickly that the chapel services could run no more than half an hour, and if we didn’t do something within the first two minutes to really engage this little congregation it had the potential to go off the rails.
Music was a key part of that engagement. Larry Campbell was with me in chapel most Sundays, and Marymound was one of the first places that Steve Bell shared his song “Wings of an Eagle.” When Steve’s touring schedule began to make it tough for him to be with us on Sunday afternoons, Larry brought along this young musician named Jon Buller, on whom a good half of my congregation instantly developed serious crushes. More than just good music leaders, the three of them were solid and safe men, who obviously wanted to be there with those kids. That was huge.
Story was another key component. I knew that if I had a good story to tell, chances were good that we’d stay on track. It began to dawn on me what a privilege it was to tell stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan to people who’d never heard them before. For those girls, the good news wasn’t simply good, it was actually news.
And then there was ritual. Our framework was a simple liturgy, which opened with the lighting of candles and the placing of symbols on a table at the front of the chapel. I’d search out symbols and images that would help flesh out the story or theme or season, and it seemed that for at least some of those girls the act of setting the little table with those items helped them to settle and come into a space approximating stillness.
Any one who has spent any amount of time around saint benedict’s table won’t be surprised to hear that rather than just leaping into Christmas I was pretty committed to exploring Advent with those girls. We would build the story slowly… unrushed… savour the “not yet” of it all. I knew I could really draw on those three key elements of music, story, and ritual to move us through the whole Advent and Christmas cycle. We of course had the Advent wreath, with its vivid symbolism of the light increasing each week as a new candle is lit. We also had the crèche, which I decided to use as the basis for a sort of ritual-based story telling. On the first Sunday of Advent, I placed the stable at the front of the chapel, with only the animals and the empty manger—the feed trough—inside. The shepherds and their sheep were placed off in a far corner of the chapel—in the fields, so to speak—but Mary and Joseph were nowhere in sight, and neither were the Magi.
On the second Sunday in Advent, I placed the Mary and Joseph figures at the back of the chapel, and explained that they had now heard the decree of Caesar Augustus that people needed to return to their home-town to be registered, and so they had begun to prepare for the journey to Bethlehem. In an attempt to make the story more real, I explained that with Mary in the final month of her pregnancy, this journey of 110 kilometers would not be an easy one. They would soon begin to make their way, but they wouldn’t arrive for some time yet. My plan was to move the figures closer on the third Sunday of Advent, have them placed in the stable on the fourth, and to finally add the figure of the baby on Christmas Eve, when we’d also bring the shepherds into the scene. That same night we’d bring out the Magi, but they’d be placed at the back of the chapel and only added to the stable on Epiphany. It was all very “liturgically correct,” but more importantly quite a number of the girls really got into this hands-on story telling approach, and were eager to help with the various relocations of the characters.
Meanwhile down in the hallway where the social workers had their offices, some well-meaning soul had also set up a little crèche. It might have been one of the social workers who did it, probably out of a sense of respect for the Sisters; keeping the Christ in Christmas, and all that. However, unlike my chapel version, this one was filled with figures: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and magi, sheep and camels, and the baby Jesus. A day or two later at the daily morning staff meeting a rather agitated residential unit supervisor announced that “one of those damned kids has stolen the baby from the manger… can you believe it?” She muttered something about how this disrespected the nuns, and how “those kids” don’t appreciate all that is done for them. I didn’t say a thing, but I did have my suspicions…
That same day I was up in one of the residential units for lunch, and one of the girls motioned to me from the doorway of her room. She pulled me just inside the door, and with this expression that blended mild guilt with utter delight, she opened her hand and held out the figure of the baby. “They put him in his manger too early,” she said. “He’s not supposed to be born until Christmas.” How could I not smile?
I suggested that while she was quite correct on that count, there were a few people who were rather wound up about the stolen Christ child. Without hesitation, she handed the little wooden figure to me, and said, “They’ll put him back, won’t they?” I said that they probably would, but that in the chapel we’d hold tough until the 24th.
After lunch I headed down to the office of the Sister Superior, a woman in her early 70s named Sister Monica. She’d been a Good Shepherd sister for some fifty years at that point, and had worked with countless of these girls. She didn’t ever seem to lose hope or become jaded in that work, instead remaining a wonderfully creative soul with just enough mischief in her heart to make me quite sure that this little incident would be not only tolerated, but might actually be embraced.
I placed the figure of the baby on her desk, and recounted the whole story in detail. All the way through, Monica just kept chuckling, her eyes all lit up with a delight not unlike what I’d seen on the face of the girl. Monica had been in chapel on those two Advent Sundays when I’d been taking this approach with the crèche, and she thought it was just great that one of the girls had paid such close attention and taken my teaching to heart. “I have to meet her,” Monica added. “On Sunday, after chapel.”
And so on that third Sunday in Advent after we had moved the figures of Mary and Joseph closer to the stable and the service had ended, I went over to that girl and told her that Sister Monica wanted to meet her. “Oh sh…” Well, fill in that blank as you will, but just know that this time the look on this girl’s face was one closer to guilty fear. I led her over to the pew where Monica was sitting, and made the introduction. Monica jumped up, took the girl by the hands, and with a great smile exclaimed, “I was so wanting to meet you!” Relief flooded the face of that girl, and the two of them settled down together on the pew. For the next fifteen minutes or so there was steady chatter, punctuated by great bursts of laughter.
Sister Monica quietly returned the figure of the baby to the manger scene in the social work area, where the shepherds and magi spent two full week gazing down at him. In the chapel we did hold firm, of course. And from then on, that girl would often sit beside the aging nun in the chapel, an unlikely friendship sealed by a bit of shared holy mischief. And when you think about it, for all that Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is marked by real hardship—a long hard journey, an oppressive political situation, a barn the only space for a young woman to give birth to her baby—it too is a story of holy mischief. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but it begins far from the centers of power and privilege, its first witnesses not princes or priests but the animals in the stable and a group of rough shepherds who’ve come in from the fields. And year after year as we tell the story, it still can fill us with a strange kind of child-like wonder at God’s curious, mischievous, and holy way of coming among us.
Have a blessed and peaceful Christmas season, touched by just a bit of God’s holy mischief.