December 2023: Lessons from My Childhood Christmas Play

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. '76
Dear Friends,

Each year before Christmas when I was a student in my parish elementary school - Saint Helena’s, in Bellefonte, just down the Philadelphia Pike from Archmere Academy - the students would present the traditional Christmas story of the birth of Jesus. I remember being one of the Three Kings (probably cast because I matured at an early age and had a growth spurt in 7th grade). I wore my father’s bathrobe and he made a crown from some bendable metal he found in our garage that he spray-painted gold. Another year I portrayed a shepherd, and my aunt sewed my costume out of bed sheets. It was a look. The script never changed from year-to-year, as did my teachers - the Sisters of Saint Joseph. None of us had lines to remember, since the entire play was narrated using the Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew. We did have to learn a few Christmas carols that were interjected throughout the narrative. There were years when Jesus was portrayed by a doll and other years when we actually had someone’s baby brother or sister in the crib! 

I still remember the joyful feeling of walking home after the play on the last day of school with a box of hard candies that all of us were given as our Christmas gifts from the Sisters. I remember thinking, “How perfect the story of Christmas is!” - never changing, always peaceful and beautiful! I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity of a Catholic elementary school education and to have these fond memories.

However, I recently heard a reflection about the Christmas story that offered lessons to us about making difficult decisions, trusting in God’s work, and knowing hardship. Imagine Mary’s strength and faith in God to say “Yes”.  A woman pregnant before marriage was punishable by death under the Jewish law in those days: “ . . . they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death” (Deut. 22:20) Consider Joseph’s obedience to God to take Mary for his wife and protect her and Jesus throughout his life. Neither Joseph nor Mary are presumed to have had any insight or supernatural powers to handle this fantastic event of God coming to earth in human form. 

With their decisions to trust in God, were they rewarded with a comfortable life? No, they were uprooted from Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem, just as Mary was ready to give birth. It was probably not a journey they would have wanted to take, but they made the trip because of the census being taken. The timing was anything but perfect. When they arrived at Bethlehem, they had nowhere to stay, and in their “homelessness” they found shelter from the elements in a stable with the animals. No warm bed, hot water, or other amenities to bring comfort to Mary as she gave birth to Jesus. After Jesus was born, they had to travel to Egypt to protect Jesus from King Herod. I cannot imagine how I would feel knowing that someone with the power and resources of a king wanted to harm my infant child!

The journey for Joseph and Mary that began with Mary’s “Yes” to the angel Gabriel’s message, that saw Mary kneeling at the foot of Jesus’ cross as her only son died before her eyes, and concluded with Jesus rising from the dead, would be both physically and mentally challenging for any of us. Yet, Joseph and Mary, both human, demonstrated tremendous faith in God in the face of hardships and uncertainties about their future. 

Now, as I see it, everything about the Christmas story is just the opposite of the idyllic plays of my childhood. What could go wrong did go wrong in Joseph and Mary’s lives, but was that God’s plan after all? The traditional Christmas plays end with the visit of the Magi, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Before that, in the Gospel of Saint Luke, he provides the account of Jesus’ presentation in the temple as prescribed by Jewish law for all male children to be consecrated to the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: 
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” 
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 
“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, 
and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce 
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” 
(Luke 2:25-35)

After this account, the Gospels do not provide much detail about Jesus’ early life with Joseph and Mary, presumably learning carpentry from his foster father, Joseph. We are brought back into the life of the Holy Family when Jesus is found in the Temple by Joseph and Mary, who thought he was lost. Instead, Jesus was reading Scripture and conversing with the elders and teachers in the Temple. It is recorded in Luke 2:40-52: 

And as the child grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom; and God's favor was with him. Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual. When the days of the feast were over and they set off home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. They assumed he was somewhere in the party, and it was only after a day's journey that they went to look for him among their relations and acquaintances. When they failed to find him they went back to Jerusalem looking for him everywhere. It happened that, three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions; and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies. They were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him, 'My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.' He replied, 'Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?' But they did not understand what he meant. He went down with them then and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority. His mother stored up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and with people

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “‘I must be in my Father’s house’ can also be translated, ‘I must be about my Father’s work.’ In either translation, Jesus refers to God as his Father. His divine sonship, and his obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, take precedence over his ties to his family.”

Two lines - one in each of the Gospel passages that confirm the tremendous faith of Joseph and Mary are, “The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him” when Jesus was presented in the Temple when he was 40-days-old, and again, “But they did not understand what he meant” when they found Jesus in the Temple years later. Since Jesus’ conception and birth, Joseph and Mary accepted God’s divine plan, puzzled and questioning it at times, I would imagine, but always following through. I also find a second line in the Gospel compelling, “His mother stored up all these things in her heart.” As a mother who shares her flesh and blood with her child, did she have a sense “in her heart” about the specialness of Jesus, though perhaps her mind could not begin to comprehend who he was? Those of us who are parents might say that we develop a “sense of the heart” about our children, not knowing everything that is going on in their minds, but developing a relationship - a bond - with them.

So, as I celebrate this Christmas, while my childhood memories of the Christmas story remain, as a parent and a grandparent now, I have a deeper, perhaps more mature understanding of what just exactly happened when Jesus was born. It was the most rudimentary of births at a most primitive time, yet it is the zenith of our existence - the love of God for us and the love we are able to express to one another. That matters more than any earthly comforts.

At this Christmastime, when our world is bedeviled with wars, conflict, hatred, and polarization of thoughts and ideologies, let’s renew our belief in the Christmas story, knowing that our life journeys will have challenges, but also knowing love in action, which is compromise, collaboration, empathy, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance, hospitality, generosity, sharing, and so many other expressions of love, will bring us joy not only at Christmas, but every day of the year! I continue to be so grateful and hopeful for every member of the Archmere Academy community, and wish everyone a Blessed and Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year!

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Head of School
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.