June 24, 2016
It’s late afternoon on Christmas Eve, and three camels wait on the steps outside St. Peter Catholic Church in DeLand, Florida. Before winter daylight fades, the camels bend their necks to enter the main church doors and are led by three wise men down the center isle to join sheep, a donkey, and children presenting a colorful Nativity pageant.
Several years ago, St. Peter’s Pastor, Fr. Thomas Connery, was inspired by the concept of the first manger scene created by St. Francis of Assisi. Connery says he included animals in the liturgy “to leave an imprint on people’s minds.” Bringing the true story of Christmas to life combats the pervasive materialism and commercialism of the modern holiday, while filling children’s memory banks with sensory-rich experiences. The creative Christmas Eve Liturgy appeals to different learning styles and re-creates what life was like at the time of Jesus. Mrs. Renee Storey, Coordinator of Adult Religious Education, says the tradition touches children and adults alike.”My 98 year old friend wept,” says Storey. The sights, smells, and sounds of the liturgy offer a profoundly touching experience of Love made flesh.
The tradition has impacted the parish and community so deeply that when Fr. Connery suggested not including the camels in the 2015 liturgy, parishioners and staff objected. People of other faiths, including Jewish families, have joined in the celebration, which Mrs. Storey describes as her church’s expression of love for parishioners and the community. Located on the second busiest street in town, St. Peter Church is perfectly positioned to extend God’s love beyond the Christmas pageant. Lively booths outside the church feature puppets, carolers, and favorite holiday mascots such as a snowman and reindeer. A snow machine creates an exciting backdrop for photographs, a treat for children in the south.
The clearest snapshots, however, are in the minds of all who witness the camels making their way to the Christ Child. St. Peter Church knows what brain science research shows: Our strongest memories are created when our senses are full and our emotions heightened. Creative liturgy is about creating a lasting moment. Fr. Connery acknowledges the challenge of following up with visitors after a special celebration and turning that extraordinary experience into a life transforming one. He wonders if perhaps the Christmas celebration is “too big,” but it is merely pointing the way to the small babe the manger, where worshippers are giving birth to love, joy, and peace.
By: Carla D’Rozario