The Play's the Thing
December 24, 2001
Christmas pageants are things of predictability. They remind us
of Christmases past, because the script never changes. From the outset,
we know the plotline, the characters, and the scenery, down to the last
straw. Yet we still put on pageants every year. Of course, they are
fun for the kids, and adults like doting on the cute angels and nostalgically
singing carols. We take comfort in their predictability and familiarity.
Angels at Zababdeh's Christmas Eve Service
As kids in Zababdeh prepare their Mary and Joseph costumes, they are
also part of another pageant, similarly predictable but far from comforting.
For more than a year, they - and we - have seen their land sucked deeper
and deeper into a vicious cycle of violence. Like the treasured Christmas
pageant, the script changes little, and the players seem to know their
lines fairly well. A bus is blown up; a school is shelled. A driver is
shot; a leader is assassinated. One action leads to another, and
we have become so used to the story we could write the next act ourselves.
Journalist John LeCarri reported in 1982 that "terror is theater" -
sanguine, perhaps, but true. Terrorism is perpetrated to send a message
to an audience (opponents, supporters, the world at large) and elicit a
response. Here, two sides are engaged in violent acts of terror as they
pen bloody messages assuring enemies and allies alike of their strength
- all, of course, is served up cinematically to influence the armchair
audience. Meanwhile, we see Israeli and Palestinian talking heads
sparring on TV, vying for world opinion. The nightly news has become like
a bad TV drama, overfull with violence and lacking almost as much imagination
Meanwhile there's another drama backstage, the realities of the people who live on the set. From our seats in
Zababdeh (luckily for us not front and center, but close enough to be spattered
by sweat and blood from the stage), we have seen a lot of suffering. For
weeks, the siege on Jenin district has prevented many of our students and
teachers from coming to school. For weeks, we haven't been able to
go to the bank (in a place where ATMs are unheard of). Many days
we had no telephone service (or, consequently, internet access) as everything
routes through Jenin. Our good friend, a man who has taken pains
to welcome us, had a heart attack last week; it took the ambulance two
and a half hours to make a (normally) fifteen minute trip to Jenin's hospital.
(Thank God he made it and has improved. Our prayers are with him as his
family tries to take him to Amman for surgery soon.) Our neighbor,
who used to work in a Jerusalem hotel, now tries to earn money with a taxi;
yesterday he brought home a gross of 15 shekels ($3.50) for his family
The Roman Theater at Jaresh, Jordan
As you probably know, these examples are less dire than others. In Zababdeh
we do not have deadly bombs in our shops or bullets flying in our streets.
Unlike too many others who have died as they waited at checkpoints or trying
to go around them, our friend made it to the hospital in time. None
of our students has been killed or injured; our school has remained
open and has not been damaged (last week the Quaker Friends' School in
Ramallah was hit by missiles from an Israeli helicopter). People
in Zababdeh may not have work, but few are going hungry, and none are having
their homes shot at or demolished.
As we watch such things happen, we sit, unable to look away, but unable
to act. We know the script; we see the repeating cycle - what can we do
but follow along? Jesus lived in a world like this. A script was
written for the Messiah, and he was expected to follow it. He should
come in glory and free the people from the oppressive Roman occupation
- a political solution for a political problem. But Jesus didn't follow
the script; rather, he turned it on its head, angering the crowds. He compared
them to children playing in the street, calling out to others: "We played
the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did
not mourn." In other words, Jesus failed to meet their expectations.
He didn't play along. His death on the cross was the widest deviation
of all - the Messiah was supposed the kill the Romans, not be killed by
them! Our great Hebrew comedy turned to tragedy. Our king wore
the crown of thorns, not the one of gold set aside for him. But in
his death lies the beauty of possibility. The moment we think that
the curtain has fallen, that the play has ended, Jesus, again defying our
expectations, delivers the message of hope through his resurrection.
Mary and Joseph at Zababdeh's Christmas Eve Service
As we move through this Christmas season, may we be moved by this promise
of hope. May its grace, passion, and courage fill every detail of
the pageants we watch - as well as those we live out.
Elizabeth and Marthame