The Juggler
Robert Fulghum


My friend Willy reminds me of a juggler who came to our church one Christmas Eve for the midnight service.  I wanted to read an old story from long ago about a wandering juggler who happened into a monastery in deep winter and asked for refuge.  You may know this story.  If memory serves me well, I think it's a French tale called "Our Lady's Juggler."

The story says that the monks were busy making gifts to lay before the high altar of the monastery chapel in honor of the Virgin Mary.  Because if she was pleased, her statue would shed a tear of compassion for humanity.  But when the gifts were presented at the Feast of the Nativity, the statue did not respond.  In the middle of the night, the juggler, who thought he had no gift to give, went in alone and juggled before the statue--and juggled to the very limit of his capacity.  To make a long story short, the statue of the Virgin Mary shed a tear--and the baby Jesus in her arms smiled--because the juggler had given everything he had, holding back nothing in his generosity.  So goes the story.

To bring the story to life, I wanted to have a real juggler perform for the congregation first, and then I'd tell the story and turn it into my Christmas sermon.  A little show-business pizzazz for the midnight service.

When time for the service came, the juggler had not arrived.  Not until the middle of the second carol did I see him working his way up the crowded side aisle.  But no costume.  I had specifically asked him to wear his jester outfit.  And no juggling equipment, either.  What a disappointment.  So much for magic at midnight.

While the congregation headed into the last verse of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the juggler and I held a whispered conference.  His car had been stolen, with all his possessions and equipment.  But not to worry.  A friend had brought him and would take him home afterward.  In the meantime, he had an idea.  All I had to do was tell the fairy story, and he, the juggler, would take it from there.

No time to argue.  The carol was done, and the service had to go on.  I assumed that when it came time for his performance, the juggler would explain his circumstances and use some things he had found in the church kitchen for a short act.  Reasonable enough.  However, Christmas Eve is not a time for reasonableness.  I ought to know that by now.

So I read the story.

And the juggler stepped into the light from out of the congregation.  Slim young man, the wiry, athletic kind.  Black tennis shoes, jeans, green turtleneck shirt.  Solemn expression and freckles on his face instead of the expected makeup.  Longish brown hair.  Nothing special to look at.  And no tools of his trade.

He smiled.  And began his routine.  In fact, he went through his entire routine just as if he had brought balls and clubs and knives and scarves with him.  We had all seen enough juggling to know what was going on.  And in each part of the routine, he went one step further than he had ever juggled and we had ever seen.  Seven balls is supposed to be the limit for the very best professional juggler.  Our guy did eight, and we knew it when he did it and applauded the moment of triumph.  On through twelve silk scarves in the air at once and seven knives, and we even knew when he set his torches on fire and got eight torches in the air all at once and caught them without burning himself.  We laughed and shouted encouragement and applauded this remarkable performance.  We couldn't see it, but we believed it.  We gave him a standing ovation.  On Christmas Eve in church--a standing ovation.  He held up his hand for silence, and the congregation sat down.  The juggler wasn't through.

He started juggling things we couldn't recognize.  What's this?  Chickens?  Birds?  Some kind of tree.  Rings.  One off each finger.  Five?  Five gold rings.  Got it!  "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  He was going to juggle one of everything in the Twelve Days.  The partridge, the pear tree, and all the rest.  Impossible.  But he was doing it.  A swan.  A goose and an egg.  I was thinking, He will never get the maid and the cow off the ground, but with a great heaving effort, he did it.  After that, the leaping lady and the dancing lord and the drum with drummer were a piece of cake.  Every gift was in the air--way, way up in the air, because this was a lot of stuff.  And as each piece came around, we knew what it was and shouted out its name as he caught it and threw it back in the air again.  Fantastic!  Nobody had ever done this before.  The juggler was laughing.  The congregation cheered like a crowd at a championship game when a last-minute score won it for the home team.  The juggler suddenly clapped his hands loudly and stood still.  One finger in front of his lips called for silence.  And silence came.

We stood looking at him and he at us.  In the most powerful and meaningful moment of quiet I've witnessed at Christmas Eve.  The sermon was supposed to follow the juggler.  And it did.  But it was not I who spoke.  We were all addressed by a sermon of eloquent instructive silence.  The silence in which we absorbed the power of the vision we had of the impossible event we had wished into being.  The silence in which we thought about our capacity to realize things we can sometimes only imagine.  Some of the most wonderful things have to be believed to be seen.  Like flying reindeer and angels.  Like peace on earth, goodwill, hope, and joy.  Real because they can be imagined into being.  Christmas is not a date on a calendar but a state of mind.

Someone--I don't know who--began to sing "Silent Night."  As was our tradition, people on the first row lit their small candles from the big candle on the altar, and then passed the flame on to the candles of those in rows behind them.  The church filled with light.  And we filed out of the church singing into the night and went home, taking our light with us.


"Uh-oh" is more than a momentary reaction to small problems.  "Uh-oh" is an attitude--a perspective on the universe.  It is a part of the equation that summarizes my view of the conditions of existence:
"Uh-oh" + "oh-wow" + "uh-oh" + "oh, God" = "ah-hah!"


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