Matthew 1: 18-22
December 14, 2004
Carramar, Doncaster East
Phyllis wasn’t easy to love. Doris wanted the best for her, prayed for her, but couldn’t help sometimes wishing someone else had her in their Sunday School class! She had stringy hair, dirty nails, and a runny nose. She held herself aloof, and walked with a sort of stomp. She could never sit still, hated being touched, and always had to have the last word.
Doris was 20, and was arranging the Sunday School Christmas program for the first time.
“If you’d like speaking parts, raise your hand,” she said. Almost every hand but Phyllis’ shot up. When they’d all been given parts, there were still some left to fill.
“Phyllis,” she said, “wouldn’t you like just a few words to say?”
“Who said I was even coming?” she said, arms folded across her chest, the chair tipped precariously on its back legs. “I’m probably going to a party that night.”
“Lord,” Doris prayed under her breath, “please help me love Phyllis.”
Out loud she said, “If you change your mind, there may still be a part for you.”
“I won’t,” she said. And she didn’t.
At the dress rehearsal the children sat in the front pews of the church, while their parents rearranged bath-towel head-dresses and dusted off angels’ wings.
“Okay,” said Doris from the back of the church. “Take your places.”
The reader began, “In those days, a decree went out…” A shiver ran down Doris’ spine. She was immersed in the old story.
“Mary doesn’t act like she’s gonna have a baby,” muttered a husky voice behind her. Phyllis might not have wanted a part, but she wasn’t going to miss her chance at being a critic.
“Shhh!” Doris whispered, reaching out to pat Phyllis’ hand, She jerked it away.
In the last scene a spotlight picked out the Holy Family, while the children hummed “Silent Night.” It was a beautiful moment – until Phyllis darted forward, stuck her hand into the manger, squeezed the doll’s arm, and disappeared into the shadows.
“Phyllis,” Doris called, “What are you doing up there?"
“I’m just looking. Besides, it’s not a baby. It’s a doll. I felt it.”
Doris found herself repeating, “Lord, help me love Phyllis!”
“Alright,” she said to the cast, “Please be here by 6.30, so you’ll be in costume and ready to start promptly at 7.”
Phyllis stomped off with the rest of the children.
“With any luck,” Doris thought, “she’ll actually have a party tonight.”
By a quarter to seven backstage was electric with excitement. Doris moved from child to child helping wherever she was needed. Phyllis wasn’t to be seen; she began to relax.
Just a minute before seven Mrs Wright appeared, in her arms her tiny new baby. “He’s just been fed, so he should sleep through the performance.”
“Please put him in the manger just as the lights go down,” Doris whispered.
As the organ began the service, Doris took her prompter’s seat in the front pew. The light came up; the narrator began.
Instead of the shiver up her spine she’d expected, Doris felt something bump her knee and give a little shove. “Move over,” said the familiar husky voice. “I decided not to go to the party.”
Without taking her eyes off the script, Doris reached out to pat Phyllis’ knee. Her hand was flung away.
“I’m doing my best, Lord,” she thought.
The angels sang to the shepherds. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and took a lamb for the baby. The wise men went to see Herod, and then went on to the stable. Mary sat there, “pondering these things in her heart.”
Doris was confident it was all going well. Phyllis was so quiet she’d forgotten about her. When she realised she was gone, it was too late.
Phyllis stomped all the way up to the manger, just as she’d done at the rehearsal. This time though she stiffened, awe-struck. She turned, wide-eyed, and came hurrying back.
“He’s alive,” she said in a penetrating stage-whisper.
Across the aisle someone asked, “What did she say?”
“She said, ‘He’s alive!’”
The word rippled from pew to pew, “He’s alive… alive… alive.” The air grew electric, as one by one people in the congregation felt the living presence of the Babe of Bethlehem.
That was the reason they were celebrating. He’s alive! Immanuel – God with us. A tough, unruly little girl had brought the message home in ways she couldn’t have understood. Jesus is alive and with us!
The lights came up. As they stood to sing Joy to the world! the Lord is come it had never seemed so true.
Doris put her arm around Phyllis’ tight little shoulders. “You were the best part of the play,” she whispered into her ear, drawing her close.
“I wasn’t in your play,” she said. But she didn’t push Doris away.