How do you tell the Christmas story to a group of people who are intellectually disabled? Of course, this is a dilemma no matter where your ministry lies. If you are a parent, can you make the story fresh to your growing brood? If you preach to a congregation of 10,000, what is the method you will use to keep the message relevant while remain true to the gospel message? Each year I try to find a different way to share the story of God’s love incarnated into a man to the programs I shepherd at The Special Gathering which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.
This year, I told the story using members who are least physically able to respond as the characters. I joked and laughed with them, sharing as humorously as possible the in’s and out’s of the Biblical account. Because I work with three different programs at Special Gathering, each reenactment had different characters and each one was vastly different because of the diverse personalities that made up the “casts.”
In each program, there was one person whose personality shined through when selected. I chose the people at random asking them to participate as their character was introduced. Mary was a young woman who is extremely low functioning in one of our enactments. Everyone attending applauded when I selected her. Her smile told the story of her delight and her smile carried the action through until the end.
The first time we had our presentation, there was a small group of 17 people. Therefore, we had one angel who came to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. This person was animated and funny. His flair for the dramatic was obvious. After he had spoken to Mary, I said, “Then the angel disappeared.” He looked at me quizzically and shrugged his shoulders, acting as though I expected him to disappear. ”Can’t you even disappear?” I asked. He pretended to try to disappear. ”What kind of angel are you?” I asked. Again, he mischievously responded with a great deal of humor and delight.
Each time he “appeared” the audience laughed with pleasure at his antics and showmanship. We played off each other and I took my cues from his facial expressions and movements. We all laughed all through the actions because of his good humor.
At our largest program, there were more than 50 people from which to draw. Mary was a higher functioning young woman She does not walk or speak. We call her the “queen” because everyone loves her so much that we fight over who will serve her and push her wheelchair.
The surprise, however, was the man I chose to be Joseph. This Joseph is an amazing actor. He, too, is physically disabled. He navigates with a walker. Extreme palsy plagues the movements of his body, making them exaggerated with spasms and violent jerks. Yet, in front of an audience, this Joseph came alive with expression and animation. He was the attentive lover. His visage stormed with disappointment and anger, when he heard about Mary’s pregnancy. His face showed shock at the angel visitation; then his movements turned to extreme tenderness toward Mary.
I keep the story simple but embellishing it with the emotions that each character must have felt. Laughter and silliness are the mark of the day. Of course, I don’t make fun of the details of the story but, like this year, there is always someone who wants to play the clown and I play off of their ability to laugh at an awkward situation or a unique situation.
After we laugh and play, I turn the story to the seriousness of Jesus’ sacrifice. The good news of God’s love for us is amplified by the birth and life of this humble god-man who was born in order that he might die for us.