In the fellowship hall (large dining room with the kitchen) in our church building there is an old Communion Table (table used in a worship service for the sacrament of Communion) upon which a plastic nativity set lives during Advent (four weeks before Christmas) and Christmas. Each year we bring this set out, try to remember to place the step stool in front of the table and a sign that says “please play with this set.” Some years we forget all but the set.
Then the fun begins. The custodian and I take turns moving the pieces all around the table and creating a jumble of all the pieces. The next time a child comes in the room they put it all back together. On a Sunday morning this can go on for the whole time the building is occupied. I will walk by the table and mix up the pieces only to come back five minutes later and there are no children around but the pieces are back in an order. I do what any good humored person would do, I mix them up again.
This year I took baby Jesus from the pieces and hid him in my office mailbox. When the children seemed too fearful to remove him I handed him off to one of our youngest children and asked him to hold on to Jesus until the older kids came looking for him. His sparkling joyful eyes were a gift that morning.
This tradition of ours is one I look forward to each year. It is simple, makes me laugh, and the continued participation of our teenagers in the game fills my heart. Yes, we talk about the Christmas Story. Yes, the children lead worship with a program each year. Those are meaningful parts of the season too. But it is this simple game played with our children that ushers in the season for me.
The season begins for me with the laughter I overhear when little hands are trying to rush to put the pieces back in the stable as I come around the corner, being sure to make noise so they know it is me; with the questions about a missing pieces asked in the all-knowing voice of a child who has played this game with me before; with the whisper of the teenage voices telling me they mixed the pieces up this time while a little one was taking off their coat; and with the laughter shared with the custodian as we think about what to do next time.
As we approach the end of Advent and welcome the joy of Christmas morning I am thankful for the children who remind me of the joy of life that is best when shared with others.