The Community of Our Nativity
The van skids slightly before gently bouncing off the snow-buried curb. Behind us, covering a half a block in any direction, there are hundreds of little white glowing bags, the annual combined contribution of the Candy Store and the Hardware Store. Each bag contains a scoopful of sand and a lit tea candle.
Hundreds of bags line the sidewalks leading to the Lutheran Elementary School.
Hundreds of softly glowing lights marking the path to Bethlehem.
Our family steps onto the sidewalk to join the well-bundled migration heading towards the playground. We're officially part of our town’s annual pilgrimage to the Living Nativity.
“Welcome to Bethlehem!”
One of the local bankers, her glasses framed by a piece of burlap wrapped about with twine covers her stocking cap. The burlap robe almost hides her snowmobile suit as the hay bale twine slightly fails its job.
A soft, small voice shyly echoes the greeting.
“Welcome to Bethlehem”.
The little girl is standing next to her banker-mom, the little burlap outfit hiding her snowsuit very well, but not quite covering the shiny pink snow boots.
We say “thank you" as we follow the churned-up snow between the white bags. Circumnavigating the school's gym, we find ourselves on the playground.
Just past the swing sets are twelve sections of hay bale seats, four to a section, three sections divided by two aisles. Each bale allows about two adults and 1/3 of a child to sit in relative comfort.
We stake our claim to a row in the back and settle in.
We relax, sharing a blanket over all our laps. The arc of the corner streetlight just barely reaches the makeshift seating, turning the audience into a shadow theatre.
Dark, lumpy shapes of adults sit patiently, heads turning occasionally in conversation. Silhouetted shapes of children sit, stand, push, and fall. The smallest of the shadows sit and methodically pluck hay out of the bales.
Behind us the Lutheran Youth Group waits impatiently to operate the two spotlights. The construction scaffolds creak and groan as they fidget and bounce, trying to stay warm.
At the front of the audience stands The Stable.
It resembles a large shed missing 3/4 of its walls. The flat roof and back wall are solid. The four large corner posts have a one-rung/two-by-four railing running around the sides and front which stop at two posts in the middle of the front. This opening constitutes the "door" to The Stable.
Exactly two steps inside this door lies a single hay bale snugged up to the front of a deer feeder. Inside the door, to the left, is The Junior Hi Kid. He's wearing a bright, blaze-orange smock over his snowmobile suit accompanied by the mandatory burlap headdress. He sits on a straw bale in self-concious boredom, morosely tethered to a goat. The Goat is happily munching a small pile of hay. The Junior High Kid is neither munching nor happy.
Suddenly a booming amplified Voice rings out thru the darkness, bringing immediate thoughts of God at the Moment of Creation. Or the End Times Judgements, depending on your denominational leanings.
The Voice belongs to the unseen Lutheran pastor. The Voice tells the story of the Holy Family finding no room in the Inn. One of the spotlights snaps on, focusing on Joseph and Mary who are walking out from behind the school’s utility shed.
Joseph is leading a small, gray, pot-bellied burro with Mary following close behind. Now in the spotlight's glare, The Burro balks and shuts its eyes. The little animal decides to let Joseph have the spotlight, moving behind Joseph and placing its head somewhat forcibly into the seat of Joseph’s burlap robe.
Mary, with pillow-enhanced abdomen, walks on serenely as Joseph walks, hops, and skips, trying to pull The Burro’s head out of his heiney.
When they all get to the entrance, Joseph removes The Burro to tie it to the railing to the right of the door. He and Mary go inside. As they hike up their robes to take their seats on either side of the deer feeder, we find that Joseph and Mary prefer wool hunting pants to snowmobile suits.
The Voice rises dramatically while mentioning the arrival of the Christ Child. Mary discreetly turns to face the back wall. Then, in a miracle to rival the Original Virgin Birth, she loses her protruding abdomen while picking up a light blue bundle of cloth. Turning back she tenderly places the little bundle into the deer feeder which now, upon receipt of the Christ Child, has become The Manger.
The deposit of something into The Manger piques the curiosity of the goat. It jumps up on the central hay bale and stares down at the Baby Jesus. Suddenly, the goat thrusts its head into The Manager. Whether this is an act of worship or an attempt at consumption we will never know.
With impressive strength and quickness, Joseph grapples The Carnivorous Goat into submission, allowing the flustered Junior High Kid to tie it off near the left doorpost. Joseph shoves a small pile of hay farther away from the Holy Family. The Carnivorous Goat follows the hay.
The Voice thunders on until it reaches the phrase “guarding their flocks by night”. A spotlight swings away from the Stable to encircle a burlap blob of people. Three men and three boys are huddled out in the single-digit night next to a huge snow-encrusted pine tree on the edge of the playground. Each shepherd has a long, wooden closet pole that our imaginations theatrically transform into a shepherd's staff.
The Voice crescendos as it states there is “a sudden light in the sky”. A few seconds later the delayed prophecy is fulfilled by the flipping of a light switch which illuminates a white figure standing majestically on top of The Stable.
The Angel, who started the day as The Choir Director, stands tall and resplendent in a white shining robe, sequin-encrusted headband, and a pair of sparkling gossamer wings. She smiles while leaning into a Rose-Parade-float-people-holder mounted on the roof top.
The Voice emphatically announces “glory to God in the highest”. The Angel stretches out her arms to complete the classic angel outline. Her wifi cheek mike is almost invisible to us in the back row. An unseen sound system brings up The Heavenly Orchestra as The Angel belts out a contemporary chorus of “Angels We Have Heard On High” like a Lady GaGa video.
All spotlights swoop to the back behind us to highlight the migration of The Heavenly Host. Each aisle has an Adult Angel leading a slowly flowing string of Little Angels towards the Stable. The Little Angels walk serenely in single file, their arms held out in the proper flying position. Their white gowns conform perfectly to the insulating loft of underlying snowsuits. The hems of their robes drag across the churned and lumpy snow, making a soft swooshing sound.
A Little Angel in the middle of our aisle serenely and firmly plants her snow boot on the hem of her robe. She flies immediately into the ground, her fallen state instantaneous. Her head and halo are half-buried in the snow. To her credit, both arms are still in perfect flying position. Stunned by this sudden fall from grace, she lies motionless as the remaining Little Angels serenely fly around her on the way to The Stable.
An Adult Angel trots quickly back to pick up, brush off, and help the sobbing cherub into the darkness leading to the backdoor of the gym.
The Angel concludes her song with a flourish. The spotlights go dark as the frozen Little Angels shuffle off to the warmth of the gym while The Angel carefully climbs down out of sight behind The Stable. The Shepherds stamp quietly in place out on the playground, waiting in the dark as do we.
There is a long moment of silence.
The night is suddenly punctuated by a loud, flatulent noise that comes from the direction of The Stable. All eyes turn to The Burro. Its head is turned toward The Stable. The other end is aimed at a family of five in the front row.
The outlines of three kids begin to loudly groan, point, and laugh. Two lumpy parent-sized outlines helplessly try to hush them. Chuckles ripple back through the crowd along with something else riding the faint winter breeze.
The Carnivorous Goat, tied to the other doorpost, cocks its head and moves a few steps farther away.
The music starts to play as the now spotlighted shepherds walk slowly toward The Stable. As they get closer, we identify them as an insurance agent, a plumber, and a baker, each accompanied by their respective son. Entering the Stable by twos, each father-and-son pair kneels between The Carnivorous Goat and The Exploding Burro to pay homage to the Baby Jesus.
The Voice solemnly booms “they went on their way, telling everyone what they had seen”. Turning to the audience, the shepherds hurriedly walk up the aisles, speaking in low, excited voices.
“Jesus is born!”
“The Savior is here!”.
One of the youngest shepherds shuffles past us as he mumbles something. It's either “Jesus is born” or “I’m so cold”. Hard to say which.
The Voice now loudly explains about The Star that appeared at the Messiah's birth. Right on cue a large, blazing electric Star appears above The Stable, its multitude of tiny white bulbs are pulsating, blinking, and glowing while giving off just enough backwards light to see the faint outline of a black-clad form holding the blackened pole which holds The Star.
The Star begins to bob up and down as it slowly moves across The Stable roof to the corner.
The Voice adds, “it came to stand over the place where the Baby lay”. The Star begins to bounce up and down.
Up and down.
Up and down.
Up and down.
The Star now begins to grunt loud enough to be heard in our row.
Up and down.
A loud grunt and the pole falls into the holder.
Now the Star stands over the place where the Baby Jesus lay.
A spotlight shines over to the playground's edge where The Shepherds once stood. It now illuminates three elaborately dressed Wise Men and a beautiful black Horse draped in a sparkling, embroidered purple blanket. All four of them move slowly and stately towards the Stable as if in either deep reverence or the final stages of hypothermia.
Upon reaching the corner of The Stable, the tether rope for The Horse is handed over the two-by-four railing to the Junior High Kid. He gets up and ties The Horse to the far side of The Stable before going back to sit next to The Carnivorous Goat.
The Carnivorous Goat is now standing in the spotlight, staring at the audience as if transfixed by the thought of that many hay bales just waiting for happy munching.
The Horse notices the hay bale in front of The Manger. It begins to push against the railing with its massive chest, its neck straining forward, its quivering lips fully outstretched. It’s these lips that make contact with the back end of the daydreaming goat.
The Carnivorous Goat bleats loudly and rockets over the front railing toward the audience. The flight tangles its lead which is firmly tied to the doorpost of the Stable. The Carnivorous Goat tugs wildly on the lead rope, trying to get its favorite parts as far away from danger as possible.
Meanwhile The Horse is totally focused on its quest for a snack. It brings all its weight to bear on The Stable's railing.
There is a short, tortured squeak. Slowly The Stable’s configuration goes slightly out-of-square. The Horse stretches farther. There is a louder, grating squeal. The Stable now moves from out-of-square to slightly elliptical.
God definitely chose the right man when He picked the Step Dad for His Son.
Joseph quickly reacts, plucking a handful of hay from the hay bale, and hands it to The Junior High Kid who quickly shoves it into the quivering lips of The Horse. The Stable groans back to vertical. The Carnivorous Goat stops jumping but is now draped over the lead rope with one leg in the air, facing the audience, and looking bewildered.
The Explosive Burro continues to stare into The Stable.
The Wise Men come forward individually to present their gifts to the Christ Child. There is the Lutheran school principal and one of the school's teachers, both wearing fake beards along with our town's mayor, the owner of a local restaurant. The mayor has his own beard.
Each Wise Man kneels between The Now Perplexed Three-Legged Carnivorous Goat and The Explosive Burro, placing their glittering gifts on the hay bale before The Manger. Mary graciously acknowledges each gift with a nod of her head.
Joseph keeps the bucket brigade going, plucking hay and relaying it to The Junior High Kid. The Horse is happy and immobile.
The Wise Men are joined by The Shepherds moving up through the crowd as The Heavenly Host files out of the gym, led by The Angel. They all congregate at the front of The Stable.
The spotlights widens to include the audience as the entire cast surrounds the Stable. The Voice solemnly brings the Living Nativity to a close, asking all to join in the singing of a Christmas carol.
As we sing, I'm looking around the snowy playground, seeing face after familiar face. Faces from work, from church, and from life. In the 8-degree air, our breath turns "Joy To The World" into a thin, glowing cloud overhead. A shining Benediction to a special evening.
Suddenly it's gets hard to sing as a realization hits home once again. The realization of a truth that's often lost in the hustle and bustle of The Holidays.
God loves us. Very much.
And that He gave us His very best.
Because He loves us that much.
The song ends and we shuffle off to the warmth of cars and homes, following the glowing bags back around the gym where we pass the burlap-clad bank-mom and the little daughter.
"Thank you for visiting Bethlehem."
Settling into the minivan, those final parting words echo in my mind.
That's something I think I should do more than just once a year.