Maybe it’s all of the Halloween hype, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of dressing up in costumes and pretending that we are something or someone else. There are plenty of arguments for why Christians maybe shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. It is, after all, a patently pagan holiday that tends to glorify the macabre. But if we put aside the ghoulish parts and focus on the fun of dressing up and getting treats, then the whole affair seems innocent enough.
In lots of New Church congregations, people dress up as characters from the Word and act out the stories as part of religious services. Some do this regularly in more informal settings and some reserve such performances for Christmas and New Church Day pageants.
As a child, I loved watching people in costume act out my favorite Bible stories. Sure, it was entertaining and it was more interesting than just listening to a minister read the Word and then talk to me about it. But it was always more than added entertainment value. I think seeing these characters and stories brought to life helped make me aware of the relevance of the Word to my own life. I got to watch friends and neighbors play these familiar roles and realized that the characters in the Word were people. They were like me.
When I was older, I started to participate in religious pageants whenever I had the opportunity. There was something so powerful about not only watching these stories come to life, but to act them out myself. So far I have played a townsperson, a shepherd, an angel, Mary, and even part of the Great Red Dragon. The variety has been a lot of fun, but really what’s struck me over the years is how it makes so much sense to have real people bring these characters to life from time to time—because they are our life. Every figure and event in the Word is a part of our lives. It’s all relevant. We are all Mary and Joseph. We have all faced the Dragon and Herod and sought out the newborn Lord and Church in our lives. It’s all about us.
And what a powerful gift to remind ourselves, not just intellectually, but with our natural bodies that we all have these beloved and notorious characters living within us as we regenerate. Something inside of us wakes up when the Word is presented in ways that engage more of our senses. There is something both humanizing and uplifting in seeing another person emulate Mary in the moment she accepts the Lord’s plan for her. That’s us. Right there. In religious tableaux and even in cinematic interpretations of the Word, we get to experience these powerful moments in a familiar and visceral way. Observing and playing these parts can remind us that they are really a part of us. And there’s nothing make-believe about that. It is so deeply real.
I’ve had the privilege of directing both the Christmas and New Church Day pageants in my congregation in Toronto for the last three years. It brings me such joy to work alongside the people I attend church with and weave together living images of such powerful correspondences in the Word. It never ceases to amaze me how time and time again the congregation can see past the pretend sheep and the electric star and decades-old costumes, and still see something precious and deeply personal in these performances.
I have occasionally met with some resistance about using words like “performance” when talking about religious services. It’s as if “performing” is an inherently secular thing, done purely for entertainment value. But if you look it up, the first definition of the word, “perform,” is to “carry out, accomplish, or fulfill (an action, task, or function).” I think we can take a cue from that. These kinds of religious performances are special and important because they remind us to not just read the Word but to live it.
This article is just my musings on the importance of religious performance. I would love to hear about how any religious pageants you’ve seen or participated in have impacted your spiritual journey. Do you find pageants particularly powerful or instructive or even distracting or harmful? What’s something you’d like to see done in tableaux or pageant form that you haven’t seen yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading mine.