Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Please Hold the Chicken” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Touchstone.
Please Hold the Chicken
Rebecca Sicree on the Childish Interruptions That Make Up Real Life
Our daughter Helena said her first word during the Children's Mass on Christmas Eve. It was baa.
I couldn't blame her. Our parish Christmas pageant takes place during the Children's Mass. There are no speaking parts. During the reading of the Gospel, costumed children process down the aisle and take their places in a silent tableau in front of the altar. A flutist plays What Child Is This?, parents take pictures, and then the children rejoin their families in the pews. It is all very tranquil . . . except for the sheep.
The shepherds are played largely by first and second grade boys, too young to play Joseph or Wise Men but already too old to wear those girlish white robes with angel wings. (If the angels, like St. Michael, could dress like Roman legionaries, it would be a different story.) The sheep, on the other hand, are played largely by middle school girls (middle school boys never volunteer for Christmas pageants), who know from years of experience that the best, the absolute best part in the Christmas pageant is the one that lets you hide under a wooly cape, crawl down the aisle in your best dress, and baa during the Gospel. The result is that the sheep, even on hands and knees, are so big next to the shepherds that they look like escapees from the cave of the Cyclops.
Naturally, the shepherds are intimidated by the sheep. They cannot defend themselves: their parents have told them, very strictly and repeatedly, that their crooks are not to be used as weapons. (Shepherds' crooks are weapons, of course, which every boy recognizes immediately. This is why he wants to be a shepherd.)
The giant sheep are not intimidated by anything. They do not believe that the ban on speaking parts applies to them. Sheep, after all, do not speak. So I should not have been surprised when one of them charged up to our pew, baaed in Helena's face, then galumphed back down the aisle.
It was her older sister. Delighted, Helena dropped to her hands and knees and tore off after her, bleating enthusiastically. I had to lunge to catch her before she reached the rest of the flock in front of the altar, an impromptu and un-costumed walk-on.
The Bleating Angel
This was not the most embarrassing thing that happened to us at a Christmas pageant. Last year Mark, who was in kindergarten, was in his very first pageant. He was young and very excited about being an angel.
The pageant went according to plan at first, if you ignored Mark patting all the Wise Men on the head, perhaps to bless them. Then, during the homily, our deacon asked the children what special foods they had at Christmastime. One angel volunteered, "Snowballs!" Everyone laughed. Then our deacon added, "One of the angels baaed at me. I think next year we might need more rehearsals." Everyone laughed again, but we knew which angel it was.
"I was trying," Mark explained afterwards, "to be the guardian angel of the sheep. And I meant to say snow cones, not snowballs." He sighed. "Next year, I want to be a sheep."
Children teach us that we are not in control of our lives. With children, life quickly becomes a long string of unexpected and oftentimes embarrassing events. C. S. Lewis knew that this described everyone's life and advised, "The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life—the life God is sending one day by day."
The Origami Collection Basket
Real life does not stop on Sunday morning, and these interruptions go to church with us. Sometimes we are lucky, and no one else notices them. No one noticed, for example, when we forgot Teresa's clothes while traveling so that she had to go to Mass in a cowgirl costume. No one noticed when John carefully folded his dollar bill into an origami football and flicked it into the collection basket as it passed by. Being a year older, James was too mature for that. He folded his dollar bill into a paper airplane and flew it in instead.
Angels & Leprechauns
Some interruptions take the form of whispered comments on the Mass. Alec once commented that the Gospel had been about Jesus healing a leprechaun. (Actually, he healed ten of them, but only one came back to thank him.) Maria reported that the altar boys were angels. She knew, you see, what angels looked like from her picture Bible: they were young men in white robes, and there they were. (When I asked if her older brother Tom, an altar server, was therefore an angel, she informed me that he was only an angel in church.) Mark once turned to me in horror at Mass to report that the priest was swearing. "Mom!" he whispered. "The priest said O my God!"
Out of the Mouths of Babes
Other interruptions, however, have taught us not to value our dignity too much. Mark, for instance, does not always whisper. And sometimes he actually pays attention to the homily. This is an explosive combination. Once our priest said in his homily, "We need to protect innocent children."
Mark immediately jumped up on the pew, threw his arms in the air, and yelled out, "I'm innocent! I'm innocent!" Fortunately, his older brother Tom, home from college, caught him on the rebound and slam-dunked him back into his seat with a hand clapped over his mouth before anyone could turn around and see who this not-so-holy innocent was.
This is why we sit in the back row.
At least Mark, I told myself afterwards, didn't jump up and yell anything in front of the papal nuncio.
His older sister did that.
The Saints Go Marching In
That interruption occurred when we went to our cathedral for the Mass celebrating the 100th anniversary of our diocese. Mass began with the longest procession ever seen. Seminarians, deacons, priests, and monks processed by. Archabbots, bishops, and metropolitans followed in their silver and gold vestments. Knights and Dames of Malta strode through the doors. The Knights of Columbus marched by with their scarlet uniforms, plumed hats, and swords. Even the papal nuncio was there. Our kids watched them go by in appreciative silence. Then, near the end of the line, walked a small group of nuns in plain black and white habits. Four-year-old Teresa grew very excited. She had never seen a live nun before, but she knew who these people were. She had seen them in her picture books.
"Look, Daddy!" she cried. "Saints!"
Superheroes in Church
Of course, the most potentially embarrassing thing a child can do is not talking too loudly in church, but saying something inappropriate to one of the other parishioners. Mark was in the back of the church with his father when he saw a young man who was a quadriplegic in a mechanized wheelchair.
"Look, Dad!" he cried, "a robot!"
"No, Mark," his father said, with an apologetic smile to the young man. "This is a man in a wheelchair."
Mark's eyes widened. "Like X-Men?" he asked. The only other wheelchair he had ever seen belonged to Professor X, the leader of the X-Men from Marvel Comics.
"Do you have super powers?" Mark asked in awe. The man in the wheelchair laughed out loud.
As hard as it is to give up control of your life to God, it is even harder to give up your dignity. Children make you do just that. It is the difference between admitting that you are not writing the script of your life story and admitting that you are playing comic relief in it. But for a Christian, this shouldn't be a bad thing. G. K. Chesterton wrote, "All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises, promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified." He continued, "All the men even in H. G. Wells are dignified, when they are men at all. But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation."
If these interruptions and embarrassments in our life are really from God, then they must, somehow, be good for us. Maybe what they are doing is teaching us how to forget ourselves and be happy.
The Outlaw Chicken
But the most potentially embarrassing episode that ever happened to us at church was not my children's doing.
It was their father's.
As my husband approached the church driveway one Sunday in Advent, he saw a strange animal in front of the van. It was not a deer or even a bear, which would have been exciting but not that unusual.
It was a chicken.
This was strange because there are no farms near our church, and our town politicos had decreed that chickens, even here in rural Pennsylvania, were a threat to domestic tranquility and thus strictly forbidden as pets inside the town limits.
This meant that the little black hen was not just a runaway chicken. She was an Outlaw Chicken. If the Chicken Police caught her, she would never see hearth or home again.
She was also not a very smart chicken. Instead of crossing the road to get to the other side, which all chickens proverbially do, she was standing in the middle of the street.
My husband dropped everyone off at the church door and took an unusually long time parking the van. When he finally knelt down in the pew, he placed a large brown paper bag with the top rolled shut beside him. The kids were curious, but said nothing. Their father kept a firm grip on the bag all during Mass, even taking it up to Communion with him. All the kids knew was that every once in a while a faint bock-bock-bock emanated from somewhere in the pew.
In the social hall after Mass, my husband handed the bag to our oldest son. "Here," he said. "Don't let it escape."
Alec took a quick look inside. It was, of course, the Outlaw Chicken.
Later that day we got the hen back to its owner (via the Chicken Underground). But it was years before we told anyone that our church had provided asylum for an outlaw chicken.
"I can't believe you took it up to Communion with you," I protested after we were all home.
"If I had left it on the street, it would have been road kill," he explained. "If I had left it in the van, it would have gotten loose and made a mess. If I had left it in the pew, someone would probably have heard it and opened the bag to investigate." My husband shuddered. "Then imagine the chaos if it had escaped and run amok during Mass. Monsignor would never have forgiven me."
I shuddered myself as I tried to imagine my husband in the confessional, explaining the chicken episode. But I think Monsignor would have recognized, as Lewis and Chesterton did, that this was just another one of those humbling interruptions that make up real life. •
Rebecca Sicree writes from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. She attends Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College, Pennsylvania, with her husband Andrew and their ten children, who take up an entire pew.
“Please Hold the Chicken” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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