Tell Me the Old, Old Story: A reader's theater service adapted from Walter Wangerin's The Manger Is Empty, page 1 of 2

Brass Prelude

Opening Hymn: "O Come, All Ye Faithful" PsH 340, PH 41, 42, RL 195, TH 208

Opening Prayer

Hymn: "O Come, Let Us Adore Him"

God's Greeting

Hymn: "I Love to Tell the Story" stanza 1 PsH 530, TH 478

Reader's Theater: Tell Me the Old, Old Story

Once upon a time—

Tell this story in a generous voice. Hush your voices, men, when you enter its passages; and women, almost whisper. When you speak of loving, seem to love. Describing sorrow, be sad. Let fear come through a harried voice, and gladness come with laughter, and triumph sound like exaltation.

Half of the life of the stoiy is the story's teller. Your voice and face and body give it form. It is you whom the children hear and see. They will not distinguish. It is you who will love or not, and so the stoiy will or will not love.

Touch the child, sir, when you tell it. Ma'am, tell it to children. If you do not tell it at all, it isn't. It doesn't exist for them. Then tell it. Do not neglect it, but tell it.

Once upon a time the world was dark, and the land where the people lived was in deep darkness. It was as dark as the night in the daytime. It had been dark for so long that the people had forgotten what the light was like. This is what they did; they lit small candles for themselves and pretended it was day. But the world was a gloomy place, and the people who walked in darkness were lonelier than they knew, and the lonely people were sadder than they could say.

But God was in love with the world.

God looked down from heaven and saw that the earth was stuck, like a clock, at midnight. "No," he said. "This isn't good. It's time to make time tick again. Time, time," said the mighty God, "to turn the earth from night to morning."

And God was in love with the people especially.

He saw their little candlelight, and he pitied their pretending. "They think they see," he said, "but all they see is shadow, and people are frightened by shadows. Poor people!" he said. "They wonder why they are afraid." God watched the people move about like fireflies in the night, and he shook his head. "People, pretending to be happy," he said. "Well, I want them to be happy. It's time," declared the Lord our God. "It's time to do a new thing! I'll shatter their darkness. I will send the sunlight down so they can see and know that they are seeing!"

God so loved the world that he sent his only son into the world itself. And this is how he did it:

Once upon a time, when the whole earth was cloaked in a cloud of darkness, God in heaven turned to his angel and said, "Gabriel."

And the angel said, "What, Lord?"

And God said, "Go. Go down. Go tell my people remarkable news—"

Hymn: "For God So Loved the World" PsH 219: 2, TH 514

Parents, if you haven't already told your children the stoiy, who has? What sort of Gabriel brought it to them? Don't you know that the teller shapes the tale?

Grandparents, are you satisfied to let mumbling Rumor garble this maivelous stoiy for your grandchildren?

Should they piece it together themselves, from Christmas carols and that dead set, that mercenary invasion, that box of empty sentiment and silliness, the television? "The true meaning of Christmas"—indeed!

No, but faith should tell the tale. And love should serve it to the children lovingly. For it recounts no less than the beginning of the child's salvation.

Then you should tell it to the little ones whom you love, whose spirits you are responsible for. You tell. You.

Fathers, make a holy time in which nothing distracts you and nothing delights your children except this story. Mothers, prepare a holy space in a corner of your home. Time and space will prove the story important. Grandma, Grandpa, present a holy attitude. You reach to an ancient bedrock for this story. Both the age in your face and the love in your eye will convince the child of that, and of its truth.

Then tell the story whole, beginning to end, all of a piece, and seamless.

Say, "Child, I want to tell you a story beautiful and true. It actually happened; it happened for you."

Say, "Once upon a time, the angel Gabriel was sent from God—"

So there was an angel flying through the night. So swiftly he flew that nobody noticed. Across the continents the angel went, to a particular province named Galilee, to a city named Nazareth, and then in that city to one particular house, to one particular woman sleeping in that house. Her name was Mary. She was young and blameless and lovely in her bed, as innocent as the lily. Her lashes were long and black. She was a virgin, but she dreamed of a man named Joseph, because they were betrothed and would marry in four months' time. She was smiling in her sleep.

The angel Gabriel appeared at Mary's bedside and began to grow bright.

Light beamed in her bedroom. So Mary frowned a little. She turned in her sleep and she sighed.

Brighter and brighter grew the angel, until he blazed like the sun.

God in heaven whispered, "Gabriel, why do you hesitate? Talk to her."

So the angel opened his mouth and spoke to the woman. "Hail," he said.

But the angel's voice was like thunder.

Poor Mary awoke with a terrible start. Her eyes flew open, and she saw the brilliant light beside her, and she heard the glorious greeting in her ears, and she caught her breath, did Mary, because she was afraid—

Do you see? Do you see? The reason why the story must be told by a human mouth to human ears with human faith and affection is that a story is always more than information that some poor kid must labor to understand. A story is world, my dears, both radiant and real—a world into which the child is invited, and she enters.

And it is the telling of the story that causes this world to be.

The telling that encourages the child to believe its being.

The telling that calls her into it so that she more than knows: she actually experiences.

In the instant that the child imagines the light that Mary sees, and cares for Mary, and fears with her—in that same instant your child has departed this veiled existence and entered the world where God is unveiled, bright and present and active and loving. And which of these worlds is real? Why, both. But the latter gives meaning to the former. The latter is revelation.

The child must be enchanted.

And the story must continue to be told.

Continue, then, in a husky human voice.

Hymn: "I Love to Tell the Story" stanza PsH 530, TH 478

When the angel said, "Hail" in the middle of the night, like bright explosions in her bedroom, poor Mary jumped and covered her mouth and could not talk, because she was afraid.

God in heaven whispered, "Hurry, Gabriel. Comfort the woman."

So the angel said, "Hush, Mary." The angel softened his glorious voice and murmured like rain in the night, "Mary, hush. The dear God loves you, don't you know? God favors you, and the Lord is with you."

God favors me? Mary was trembling. Her mind was racing in the unnatural light. This greeting of the angel troubled her. What does it mean? What is he saying? she thought. Why would an angel come to me?

"Mary, do not be afraid," said the angel, still more gently—and the light grew warmer than bright, and it touched her, just on the forehead, with a single beam of kindness. So Mary grew calmer; her mind grew quiet; and she began to listen.

"Behold," said the angel, "you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus."

A baby? thought Mary. A baby?

"Quickly, Gabriel," said God in heaven. "Tell her quickly what this means."

And the angel did a comely thing: he stopped speaking, and he started to sing. So marvelous was the meaning of this baby, that it wanted a song for the telling.

"Mary," sang the angel:

Mary, the child of thy labor shall be great;
The Son of the Most High shall he be called;
And God shall give him the throne of his father David;
Over the house of Jacob shall he reign

Forever and ever: his kingdom shall have no end.

A baby? thought Mary in spite of the music. How dear was the promise. How deeply she longed for it. But there was a problem she couldn't ignore. Desire was troubled by that problem, and Mary astonished herself. She actually spoke to the angel.

"How can this be?" she blurted—and the angel stopped singing, and God in heaven began to smile.

Well, maybe the angel didn't understand the nature of human bodies. Some things had to happen first for other things to happen second. "How can this be?" said Mary meekly on her bed. "I'm not married, you see. I don't have a husband yet."

That was the problem. Not the greatness of the baby, not his kingship, nor that the kingdom would last forever—but that the baby needed, first, a father.

There came a strange sound in Mary's bedroom then, like the creaking of the walls, or the cracking of the universe. It was an angel chuckling. For the thing that he was telling Mary was a miracle, after all. The new thing God was doing didn't depend on nature. First things didn't need to come first anymore, and the baby would have a father, but not the kind that Mary imagined.

So the angel continued, in a happy melody, to sing:

Mary, the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee;
The power of God shall overshadow thee.
And what shall they call the child that is bom of thee?
Why, they shall call him holy! The Son of God!

Mary said nothing for a moment. She was grinning and gazing at an angel, and her eyes were bright with the light. A baby, and more than a baby, oh! The Son of God. Then God would father this baby. Oh!

The angel stopped singing and murmured, "Mary?"

Mary raised her eyebrows and stretched her grin from ear to ear. "Mmm?"

"With God," the angel assured her, "nothing will be impossible."

So Mary, kneeling on her bed; Mary, bowing as lovely as the lily, whispered, "Behold—" Deep, deep inside her stomach she felt the giggles coming. "Behold!" she said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word—"

Which word was: Mary is going to have a baby! Yes!

So the angel was done, and he dimmed. The bright light faded from her bedroom. Gabriel vanished altogether. But Mary didn't mind the darkness now.

A baby!

Oh, she jumped from her bed, and the giggles tickled her throat. Oh, she clapped her hands and twirled about, and her dark hair flew like a glory around her head. Oh, the virgin was laughing now, for the virgin was going to have a baby!

So who had news for the telling now? And who would burst if she couldn't tell it? Mary!

So now there was a blameless, beautiful woman running through the world, the dark world, as fast as she could go. None of the people noticed her go. She didn't mind. She was grinning and full of good news. South she ran, to a particular province named Judea, to a particular hill, and on that hill to one particular house and one particular woman in that house, her friend, her cousin Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth, hello!"

Just as the angel had greeted Mary, Mary greeted Elizabeth, and Elizabeth began immediately to laugh.

And just as the angel had sung his celestial song for her, she sang a song for Elizabeth.

"My soul," sang Mary, "O cousin, my soul doth magnify the Lord. My spirit rejoiceth in God my Savior. He is keeping his promises to us. Elizabeth! I'm going to have a baby!"

Hymn: "Song of Mary"
PsH 212, 478, PH 600, SFL 125

So then—in the middle of the gloomy world there were two women laughing. They laughed until they couldn't laugh any more, and then they began to weep for gladness. And God looked down from heaven and saw them. And the Lord God smiled.

This, good parents, is the reason why you are telling your child the story, why you are weaving its marvelous world around her: because of love.

Because you love her. Surely that. I scarcely need to mention that.

But also because you love the Lord whose birth you are retelling, and this is the finest way to express your love and to celebrate his birthday both at once. That, too.

But more than that, because the Lord Jesus loves your child; and how shall she know it except she also feels it?

It isn't enough just to say it. That piece ofknowledge fits like a stone in the pocket, but not in the heart. It is necessary that she should be loved, that she dwell within the light of that love, that love lift her up and take her to its breast, that she breathe love and laugh love and sleep in its sweet dominion—and so experience its security, its peace, and so believe in love.

This is not a matter of the intellect, that she should think about it.

This is a matter of the heart. It isn't explained. It happens.

This is not a lesson to be learned. This is an event. And Jesus, whose story this is, encounters your child when she enters his story. And Jesus says to the child, "Hail." And what then? Why, then your child begins to grin. And her eyes grow bright with the light of the Lord. The darkness of this world is shattered for her. The sunlight shines. For she has heard her Jesus speak, and she has been transfigured by his love. She is God's own beloved.

But you, goodparents and goodly grandparents—this is also the reason why you must tell the tale unto your children.

For between you and the child there is already a weaving of human love, and the threads of that earthly weave become the holier threads of Jesus' story and his love. The shape of your love shall pattern the truer love of God when it comes—as when an artist models in clay what he shall finish in bronze or in gold.

For between you and the child already is trust, and sympathy, and a common memory, and mercy and discipline together, and triumphs, and failures, and anger, and forgiveness. These are the threads of an active love. But when it is you who tell the story in your own voice unto your own child, these also become the delicate threads that define and shape the story, in her mind fust, and then in her heart. They weave Jesus... In the story, all of these become the relationship between the child and God: trust and sympathy—and love. Slowly, then, but rightly and wondrousty, God takes your place in the heart of the child. God becomes the truer, holier, brighter parent.

You tell the story to your child, then, in order to deliver your child to God, that God should adopt her and keep her forever and forever safe.

Because you love her, you see.

But the baby isn't born yet. Talk on, dear parents. Sing on, sweet Gabriels, till the whole of the song is sung.

Hymn: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" stanzas 1-4 PsH 329, PH 1, 2, RL 183, SFL 122, TH 196

When Mary had returned to Nazareth, the man whom she was going to marry began to notice changes in her.

Now the world was very dark in those days. And people are scared in the dark, you know. But they are specially scared of changes in the dark—like moving the furniture, or changing your habits, or changing your mind; because if people don't understand these changes, they bump against them and hurt themselves and cry. In the long, long night, when people had only their candles for seeing, change was considered a dangerous thing.

Therefore, Joseph became suspicious of the changes that he saw in Mary.

"Why do you smile all the time?" he said.

And she said, "Oh, you'll see."

"Why are you always giggling? Why do you laugh all the time? And what is that strange light in your eyes?" said Joseph.

And Mary said, "You'll see."

Well, soon Joseph saw, and what he saw distressed him.

He saw that her tummy was growing big. Joseph saw that Mary was going to have a baby, and this upset him, because he wasn't the baby's father. But he truly loved Mary, so he felt hurt as well as sad, because somebody else must be the baby's father.

"How did this happen?" he asked her.

But she said, "It was the Holy Spirit," and poor Joseph grew simply miserable.

"Mary is lying to me," he said.

In those days the dark world had some dark rules by which a man could put a woman away—and then it would be as if they had never been married at all. If a woman had a baby by someone else besides her husband, then her husband could put the woman away. That was the rule.

One night Joseph lay in bed and thought about this rule.

He said the words out loud. He said, "I will put her away," and he almost started to cry.

He was a good man, was Joseph. He didn't want his Mary to suffer the shame of the gossip of the people who walked in darkness. "O wagging tongues!" he shouted. "O wagging, nasty tongues, you shall not hurt my Mary!" Therefore, he decided to put her away privately, so that no one would know what he was doing, or the sinful thing that she had done—to be with child before they were married.

With such heavy thoughts on his mind, poor Joseph fell asleep.

Then God in heaven turned to his angel.

"Gabriel," said God.

And the angel said, "What, Lord?"

"Go down," said God. "Go down right now. Tell Joseph the truth. The man is blinded by the darkness. He thinks that Mary has committed a sin. Go! Go!"

So a light grew bright in Joseph's sleep, and the brightness was a dream, but the light was the angel Gabriel, so close to the man that he shined inside his mind.

"Joseph, son of David," said the angel.

Joseph slept on; but Joseph heard and saw, and he remembered. And the more he heard, the happier he became, until there was a man in Nazareth who was smiling in his sleep.

"Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife," said the angel. "The baby conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. Mary didn't sin. Mary doesn't lie. Mary is going to have a baby boy, and you shall call him Jesus, and this is what his name means: that he will save his people from their sins."

Listen! Listen! Sin is the darkness of the world! This baby shall be its light, for he shall shine in the dark and take its sin away. Emmanuel is the infant that shall be born, which means: God with us.

Hymn: "Emmanuel, Emmanuel" TWC 140

Joseph, God is keeping his promises. Joseph, something wonderful is happening-

Even in his sleep the man was smiling as broad as a barn. When he woke, he was positively grinning.The people in Nazareth noticed the change in him, and they became suspicious.

"Why do you smile all the time?" they asked. "Why are you always giggling?"

"Oh," said Joseph, "I'm getting manied."

But even after they were married, Mary and Joseph seemed odd to people in darkness.

"Why are you laughing all the time?" they demanded. "Why don't you fuss or fight?" And what is that strange light in your eyes?"

"You'll see," they said. They giggled and said, "You'll see."

So Mary grew big and bigger with her child.

And Joseph put his hand on her tummy and laughed because he felt the baby kick.

And God looked down from heaven too. And the Lord God smiled.

For this is what the story says: that the Lord made a baby ball of himself and dropped into our hard, material world. God with us.

But that is also what the story does: makes a palpable person of the high transcendent Deity, a living and intimate being who strides into the child's world to love her where she is, just as she had crept into his story to meet him where he was, in infancy incarnate.

The Lord and the story, they establish relationship.

But relationship, dear parents and wiser grandparents (wonder at this thing: it is a marvel of continuing creation)—relationship creates and confers identity.

From the beginning the child received her identity in relationship to you; thereby came her name, and with her name her shape, her image, her very character. The name you gave her consciously, perhaps. Shape and image and character she received as an unconscious birthright: you gave her them because you bore her. You gave them to her in the natural process of raising her.

But name and shape and image and character, first being yours, became hers—became hers—in relationship to you.

Likewise this marvelous, seminal, progenitive story. In the beginning of it, the child comes to know her Lord and his love. But in that relationship she also comes to know herself. Who is born in the story? Why, Jesus. But who is born in the retelling of the story? Why, your child is— reborn. For here she receives and is persuaded of a name: Beloved of God. And here the children of God are shaped, and character is accorded them, a way to be and to behave; and the presence of God (the actual presence of God!) empowers that character, that the children might truly love as God loves them. And since it is God both shaping and empowering them, what then? Then theirs is the image of God again. The image broken in sin is renewed in the faces of the children.

Ah, parents, how could you not sit down and tell your children such a story? However could you justify neglecting it? For this is the Gospel itself—which, if they do not hear it, how can they believe? And telling it is nothing less than proclamation.

So tell it, tell it, with calm simplicity and a cosmic serenity. With faith. And thou dost name thy children in the telling, as thou thyself wast named.

Tell it with a generous voice, especially this passage to come, as familiar to thee as the rising of the sun.

And hush thy voice, O man, when that thou enterest this passage.

And woman, almost whisper.

For this is the fullness of time, the fidlness of heavenly love for us: the birth.

Hymn: "I Love to Tell the Story" stanza 3 PsH 530, TH 478

Now it came to pass in those dark days, that there went out a command from Caesar that all of the people should be counted. "A census," he decreed, "Citizens, go to the cities of your ancestors, to be counted according to families there."

So people began to travel.

So Joseph, too, obeyed the command. He and Mary traveled south together, to the province named Judea, to a particular city of David called Bethlehem, but in that city to no particular house at all, for they had no house in Bethlehem. Joseph was a descendant of David; that's why he came to Bethlehem. But there were hundreds and hundreds of others descended from David; the city was crowded with people, and that's why there were no houses nor rooms at all where Joseph could lay his Mary down to rest for a while and stay.

Even the inn was full.

But the night was dark and cold. The night was deep and lonely.

And Mary was huge with her child and tired.

She wasn't grinning any more, was Mary. She was groaning. "Joseph," she whispered, "it's time. Oh, Joseph," she said, "the baby is coming. It's time."

"Mary, can you wait a little longer?"

"No," she said.

"Mary, there's no place for us."

"It's time," she said.

So Joseph went running through the dark streets of the city. People were sleeping. Nobody noticed. Nobody answered his knocking.

So this is all he could find: a stable where travelers tethered their beasts when they slept. A little shelter against the night.

"Mary," he said when he led her there, "Do you mind?"

"No," she said.

"Can you lie on the straw?"

"It's time," she said and knelt down.

So there it was that she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Hymn: "Away in a Manager" PsH 348, PH 24, 25, RL 213, 214, SFL 129, TH 204, 205

In the beggining, before there was a worl at all, God spoke. And this is the first thing ever the Lord God said: "Let there be light." And there was light.

Light is the first thing God created. And this, and all things, he made with his creating Word; for he said it, and is was.

In the beginning, then, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God—for what was God unto the world, except that he spoke? Or where would the world be if God had never spoken?

The Word was in the beginning with God. Ad things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of every people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Nevertheless, there came an aeon, once upon a time in human history, when the world was dark, and the land where the people lived was deep in darkness, and the light of God was hidden. It was dark as the night in the daytime. It had been dark so long that the people had forgotten what the light was like.

But God was in love with the people.

Therefore, God spoke again, the second time. But the Lord God said what he had said in the beginning, before there was a world at all. He said, "Let there be light!"

And so the Word came down into the world that the Word himself had made.

For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

This, dear parents, grandparents, is all that we have said: that every time you tell the story, the first light shines again. Your words give oppoitunity to the Word, that the children might behold him. For to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

This is what we've said. No more than this.

And so you shall, in faith, continue your own saying, even to the end.

Hymn: "I Love to Tell the Story" (Refrain only) PsH 530, TH 478

And there were shepherds in that same dark country, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

Reformed Worship 41 © September 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.