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A holy ham.

I don’t particularly like ham.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll eat it. But I’d sure as hell rather have a really good burger. Or a filet if you’re really after my favorite.

This December, though, a ham has been my saving grace….

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StageOne Family Theatre is a theater company local to where I live. For 75 years, they’ve been about making live theater accessible to everyone – especially, often, young people who would not otherwise get to experience it. They run summer camps and year-round classes; they produce thoughtful, well-crafted shows that inspire thought; they believe that theater makes a difference in how we understand the world and each other. Our family has been immeasurably enriched by their work. 

For many, many years now, StageOne has, every December, put on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in play form. Perhaps you read this darling little book in grade school. It’s the story of the six Herdman kids – Imogene, Ralph, Leroy, Ollie, Claudia and Gladys. These kids are outcasts of the first order in their little town, and, to be truthful, it’s easy to see why.

They’re mean. Like, make you swallow tadpoles live and steal your lunch mean.

They’re also very, very poor. And not well cared for. And dirty. And I would suspect malnourished though the book never quite says that. Their supervision is minimal, if any, and they are subject to “child welfare” visits quite often. No one wants to be around them. Ever.

The play centers around the Herdmans descending upon their town’s annual church Christmas pageant, bullying their way into key roles and causing general chaos and discomfort. It’s actually a rather scathing critique of Christianity in parts – “Jesus said ‘suffer the children to come unto me,’ but I don’t think he meant Herdmans,” is an actual line and I laugh and cringe at it every time. 

Because of course Jesus meant exactly the Herdmans. 

It is, on the one hand, a “silly little play,” as one friend calls it. Aging, perhaps, in a world of high-end musicals and multimedia concerts. But…I dare you to watch it and not be touched, challenged, even, by the great truth that baby Jesus came for all of us. 

And all of us does actually mean all of us. 

Three of the Herdmans secure roles as the wise men. They have lots of questions as to what frankincense actually is and why in the world it was a gift to an infant. Which, I really can’t argue with. Surely the ancient middle east had something like a casserole?

Christmas Eve arrives and those Herdmans turned Wise Men, they waltz on stage carrying a ham.

Like, a shrink-wrapped, red-ribbon-bound, ham. Pink and huge and having come from their Christmas “welfare box.”

The initial assumption is that the Herdmans must hate ham. After all, why else would they have given it away? But the play’s narrator, Beth, whose mother Grace directs the pageant, somehow senses that ham means more. “They’ve never given away anything in their life,” she says, and later notes that when the pageant was over, they refused to take the ham back, because, “It’s a present, and you don’t take back presents,” says Ralph Herdman.

Y’all. I’ve seen StageOne’s production of the show no less than a dozen times over the years, and every single time I see that ham laid gently down next the manger, offered with a once mean Herdman heart turned humble; every time I see the haughty faces of the church goers soften at the gesture; every time I watch as suddenly you feel as if you aren’t watching a play after all but some crucial piece of history…every time, I am simply undone, wrecked with a desire for the truth of that ham to be what rules our hearts.  

Suddenly that ham seems holy, and the very best thing the magi could have offered. 

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I know that I am not the only one for whom this Christmas season has been difficult. I mean, y’all, we are drowning after too many years of communal loss, unspoken fear and stifled anxiety. 

We need a holy ham. Something completely ordinary that knocks us off our feet and out of our rat race long enough to ask, “A ham?!? What in the world?!? Oh…wait…. Wow.”

People will likely freeze to death in my town tonight. It will be the coldest it has been since 1989 come morning. 

Someone will die of an overdose – maybe intentional, maybe not. 

Someone will wonder if tomorrow is even worth it. 

Someone will sob until dawn wondering how to pay both the mortgage and their hospital bill. 

Someone will wonder, again, why the color of their skin matters more than who they are at heart.

Someone will hear, “It’s cancer.”

Someone will face their first Christmas without their best person.

We need a holy ham. A gift that makes no sense at all but that encompasses the very sort of love we’re all so desperate for. 

What I know is this: we are aching for wholeness, searching desperately in the darkness for something that will bring us even a small bit of peace. We’re so tired. And so heartbroken. And as much as I love presents – and y’all, I LOVE presents – I know that they cannot fill the space inside of me that hurts, that harbors past wrongs and wonders over past mistakes and wakes at 4am longing mercy. 

You have such a space, too. We all do. And neither Hallmark nor Apple nor Target can fill it. 

I wonder, though, if a holy ham could. 

****

I don’t know y’all. The world just seems rife with pain, full up with heartbreak. And some days hope is so hard to come by. We’ve made such a damn mess of things. I have no answers, none at all. All I know is that kindness matters. And that even small glimpses of grace have the potential to see us through. 

Breathe deep, okay? I promise you, somewhere, a holy ham is waiting – and when you see it, when you notice it, sitting right there, looking for all the world like it matters not at all…you’ll know that even in the worst of our chaos and the darkest of our nights, hope waits.

Hope. Waits. 

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