by Cameron Partridge
At a post-Eucharist lunch at Harvard Divinity School earlier this week, a student asked me a question about children, nativity plays, and gender. She and another student collaborate as Sunday school teachers at a local parish, and she wondered what I thought about making the parts of these plays more gender-accessible. For instance, what about suggesting that the Magi didn’t necessarily have to all be men—perhaps two men and one woman or some other combination? Or a female shepherd? Or on the other hand, would it be better to leave the parts gendered as in the biblical texts, and just make it really clear that anyone can play them?
Before I could offer a cogent response, I was practically assaulted by a childhood church memory.
I must have been six or seven years old when my parish did a “living nativity” outside on the lawn, along a fairly busy street. They scheduled it at night, and my mom brought me over after dinner. I recall pulling up to the curb in the darkness, arrested by the sight of a tent and kids dressed in strange clothing, illumined by a spotlight. I wasn’t particularly involved in church at this point, and felt awkward and shy. As we approached the tent, the curate ushered me in and gave me a choice of the parts that were left. How about a shepherd or a wise man?
I honestly can’t recall which one I chose—in fact, I may have chosen the former one year and the latter the next. But what I recall with complete and joyful clarity was what I got to be: a boy. Or, more exactly, a man. A man in flowing robes and—the best part—a beard. I remember being brought into the makeup area and having facial hair glued to my gleeful face. I stared and stared at myself in the mirror. With Mary I thought, How could this be? But in any case: Yes!
Minutes later I stood in the tent, stage right, until it was my turn to walk out into the cool darkness and kneel with gifts outstretched before that impossible baby.
Since those days I have, shall we say, traversed afar. And yet what strikes me now was how, amid the most ubiquitous of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany children’s activities,
church created a space, a moment, in which– completely unexpectedly– I could be myself. For me, the experience became a thing secretly treasured, one of several early exposures to how the Christian imaginary could instill in me a new and living hope.
Now, I doubt the community really knew what it was making space for in that little tomboy shuffling around in robes. But what if it did? What if our communities could be intentional about such things? Here in this season of living nativities, how might we actively seek to give a new and faithful agency to the children in our midst, whatever questions they may carry? What might such faithful agency look like?
As I circled back to my lunchtime question, what struck me was that churches can and do bring this story of Incarnation to their contexts in wonderfully adaptive ways. My local parish, Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, re-envisions the nativity in an imaginative way. Last year my older son and his best friend—daughter of the rector—were a pair of wiggly angels. This year he’s slated to be a sheep (though he’s waffling on that—the rehearsal will tell).
On a practical level, I think it’s a matter of inviting children to inhabit the stories and characters and to see what they do. Lord knows nativity playwrights have forever added various characters – animal and human — to welcome children into this holy mess. If your characters are gendered otherwise than your prospective actors, check in with them about it without making a big deal of it. Would they prefer to play different characters? Maybe the shepherd could be a girl instead of a boy? Or maybe the kids will have fun crossing the lines of gender that may otherwise hem their days. And if they choose the latter, again, don’t make a big deal of it. Just make space. For most folks, a little gender play is just that. For others of us, it can mean more.
Our work here is to create spaces of holy play, to invite all of us—kids from one to ninety-two, as they say– to enter these stories, to make them our own, in some mysterious way to read our own lives in and through them, to illumine and be illumined by them. The ultimate invitation to all of us is to encounter and embrace the mystery of Incarnation, whoever we are, whoever we grow up to become.
The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is an Episcopal priest and an openly transgender man. He currently serves as the Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University and a Lecturer and Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students at Harvard Divinity School.