Each year our church (Hoffmantown in Alb NM) does a Christmas program about ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, that entails lots of volunteers, choir members, animals….. and rehearsals. This year is no exception. For some reason they seem to accept me as a Priest, Shepherd or such. The beard and craggy weathered face may have something to do with the role. They don’t have to set me in a chair and glue the countless small pieces of long beard hair onto my face, as they do with several others, all Men of course, although some ladies have a good start :>)
We have been practicing, rehearsing and modifying the program for weeks. Last years, as well as previous, lasted for two hours…too long for many visitors. This year the modified program is 1.5 hours with a differing sequence of events. Amazing Gregory is a walking memory bank. He has memorized his entire narration…. from start to finish. In past years he was ‘Balthazar’, recounting the series of events that transpired, leading up to the Crucifixion and resurrection.
This year is begun with a brief video of Creation, followed by the ‘Begats’, Biblicaly documented (Christians, believers in God, have historically been recognized as the ‘People of The Book’) ancestry leading from Adam and Eve to Joseph and Mary. Followed sequentially by events leading to and including ‘The Birth of Christ’.
Gregory is telling the story, as from his Biblical documented recollections. He is ‘Simon of Cyrene’, a northern African area prominent in trade at the time. Known today as ‘Libya’. (Simon, as a bystander, was forced by the powerful, well armed Roman soldiers, to help Jesus carry his own cross). The large choir is in costume performing various roles and singing a grouping of songs, solos related to each event as it occurs.
The ladies sewing and endlessly modifying these costumes, are amazing in imagination and time spent at the church doing a thankless job. The production assistants arrive early each day and stay late each night ensuring the details are finely tuned. They are running around in the halls during rehearsals and performances, making sure each enactor has the correct props to give realism. Managing, calming the always exuberant children is a job that takes everyone in cooperation. One PA mentioned her ten miles of pedometer recorded trips each day.
This first rehearsal in costume was also the chance to ‘Prank’ Terry, our serious and dedicated choir/orchestra director, directing the entire production. We start out as Gregory (‘Simon of Cyrene’) tells the story of Mary meeting the Angel, who tells her about what is to happen in her innocent life. In the prank, the angel is circling the well. Mary is a bit cautious at first, keeping the well between her and the Angel. The Angel was dressed as… ‘Santa Claus’…. for the fun prank. Terry was laughing after he realized what was happening. Next scene had Mary performing her excellent solo, “Born in Me” about the big responsibility she was about to endure, followed by Joseph ‘the Carpenter’ being informed about His life changing future, as the man raising Jesus the Christ. Needless to say, Joseph did not accept this news with glee….. at first.
The Donkey ride on the trip to Bethlehem through the auditorium, complete with a real Donkey (‘Eyore’ is not ‘house broken’), came up after some singing (lots of excellent singing throughout the entire performance). Wife has been doing these performances for years. This year was not to be for her, due to recuperation from knee replacement. Live animals (chickens, rabbits, baby Goats) carried by the willing children, are involved as the program continues. As I am/was a Shepherd (reluctantly), I wardrobe in a long cloth garment (a dress) with a burlap vest and head wrap. We wait in the darkness at the back of the auditorium or outside the entrance doors, until our Que, the Birth of Christ, as he is brought out from the stable and placed in the manger.
The young shepherd boys run ahead, as I plod along with ‘hooked staff’ (“by hook or by crook”?), down the aisle and up the ramp runways to the manger scene. The big procession follows while the Orchestra renders ‘Evergreen’, as each richly bedecked King (3, as in “We thee Kings of Orient Are”), accompanied by their individual entourage, follows. My daughter in law and her two daughters are in full regalia, entering in the great parade of those finely adorned, escorting the entourage. After each King receives the gift from ‘bearers’ such as my granddaughter and her friends, they describe it as Myrrh, Frankincense, Gold, as they each set the gift before the baby Jesus in the manger. They all exit with great pomp. We next do the ‘Wedding scene’ with lots of dancing and singing. Jesus as a young man, turning the water into wine, is closed as Priests leave the stage. Jesus on stage performing the ‘miracles’, well documented in the Bible, such as healing the blind, restoring the lame.
My daughter in law and her two daughters are in full regalia throughout other scenes of the production as well. Three generations of our family represented in this production, as in years past. In a later scene, my daughter in law is the sinful woman being thrown and dragged before Jesus as an accused ‘Adulterer’. She has only four minutes to ‘change’ into character and be in position for the entrance. The scene is set as Jesus is performing ‘Miracles’, as recorded in the Bible. He is being forced by the Pharisees into ‘judging’ the woman, as described by ‘the law’.
The enthused ‘security’ (Prosperous Priests recruited thugs to do their dirty work) dragging and throwing her, plays the part well (he appears angry). He is almost as convincing as my daughter in law. Being physically fit, she is realistically forced to fall down two times as we all enter loudly through the auditorium, the last time down is before Jesus himself. He writes our names in the sand as we Priests are shaking our scrolls at her. We leave, feeling exposed in shame and guilty for ‘Our’ own Sins…… “He among you who is without guilt, cast the first stone”.
The production assistants devised several tricks to surprise Terry, our dedicated and serious choir director. As the entourage of ‘Kings’ exited the stage, I was to rush to the back hallway and change into my ornate Priest costume. Needless to say, I am in sandals, a long ‘dress’ and not as fast as the younger cast members, so was late for the following wedding procession and scene, where the young Jesus turned the 30 gallons of water into over 100 gallons of wine. I am supposed to lead the Groom procession. After being too late for this procession I abdicated my roll as shepherd this year, because of the impossible minutes short ‘Change’). We all exit after the water into wine scene.
While I am offstage lighting the incense burner and waiting for my Que word… ‘Jerusalem’, The story of the ‘Wayward Son’ is in progress. The talented choir member portraying the Father, sings solo in a deep baritone voice, ‘My son is Coming Home’, signifying his son, a former ‘Believer’ or non-believer that has squandered his ‘inheritance’ while being seduced by the outside world and now by choice returning to his true ‘Home’ under the Lord. Last night, the returning ‘Son’, dancing through the aisles, was dressed in a bright Pink ‘Tutu’. He then pranced and Pirouetted onto the stage. Terry only noticed his garish entrance after ‘the wayward son’ passed in front of the orchestra pit on the runway. More laughter and applause followed. :>)
Laughter ensued as scenes had other ‘pranks’. Next we are prepared for the busy market scene (complete with many small animals including rabbits. One rabbit, briefly escaped while carried by the youngsters. The ‘Taxes’ we prosper under, are collected by a Priest. My roll is Priest leading the dead corpse entourage complete with black draped Mourners. I swing a smoking incense burner.. to mask the odor of the dead guy? As I pass the last ramp leading to stage, I hand off the burner to the Mourner (they were hired by the family of the deceased) and climb the stage ramp to join Priests observing the market scene.
As a judgmental group, we pious Priests disapprovingly witness Jesus entering to a parade of fanfare, we nod in disbelief and frown at his arrival on scene, interrupting our lush, perk laden scam as Priests, that rule by Law over the masses. With Jesus becoming the believer’s direct access to God, our prosperous position in the hierarchy is threatened. The ‘Rejection’ of Jesus follows, as the crowd realizes Jesus who entered riding a Donkey instead of a King’s stallion, is no conventional King. Choir does more singing as we exit in blackout. Brief walk around backstage, until we re- enter stage right for the ‘Trial’ being held before Pontius Pilot (wearing dark sun glasses). Caiaphas, our head Priest, with our nodding approval, accuses Jesus of being a ‘Blasphemer’, to the loud approval of the vocal crowds positioned in the aisles among the audience.
Pilot, now wearing obnoxious reading glasses, signs the decree to hang Jesus on a cross, releasing the professional criminal/murderer Barabbas, back into the vocally approving crowd in return. When Caiaphas demands that Pilot (again wearing sun glasses) change the decree to say, “Jesus ‘Says’ he is King”. At that point Pilot, his wife and the young maidens accompanying the palace entourage, all whip out their little raspberry roll-outs and blow them at Caiaphas. …Another Prank has been pulled on Terry.
The following scenes Choir as the throngs of Jerusalem, singing “The Via DoLorosa”, convinces everyone that he is now going to ‘Pay’….. by his suffering…..for ‘OUR’ Sins, including, repeat Everyone. Dragging and forced staggering of Jesus carrying his own cross through the streets of Jerusalem, with Roman Soldier forced assistance by the bystander, ‘Simon of Cyrene’. The Roman guards are mean spirited and convincing. Jesus, now onstage. is bloody from the seemingly endless abuse. Simon of Cyrene is forcibly shoved aside as the abuse gets even more graphic. We Priests (Pharisees) lurk on/near right stage after the trial, nodding in approval as he is brought to Calvary, wearing a ‘Crown of Thorns’ pressed forcefully onto his head for his Crucifixion.
Ringing hammer blows ensue as Jesus is nailed to his Cross. As Jesus finally utters his last words “IT IS FINISHED”, his earthly body dies from the immense amount of abuse. The staggering Earthquake described in the Bible occurs. We ‘off balance’ Priests then gradually move to right stage as observers, and exit only as Jesus is lowered from the cross The final big scene begins with Jesus being placed in the tomb, guarded by the elite Centurions, draws to a close.
At the big ending, Jesus emerges Victorious from the Tomb, accompanied by much singing and Joy. Jesus on this prank night is wearing a definite ‘Hippy’ outfit, complete with brightly colored T shirt, sandals, bell bottoms and vest, wearing sunglasses, bead necklace and holding his arms high with fingers in the Peace sign. He is in fact……. a ‘Jesus Freak’…The last big prank of the evening. We are so sacrilegious in our church. Shame on us sinful Baptists. :>) Fortunately the ‘real’ performances in front of the large live audiences of thousands these draw, will have none of this Blasphemous…. nonsense :>) See the following ‘Replies’ to read ‘The Rest of ‘the Story’..
Friday evening is the beginning of the real thing, with one performance. Saturday has two and Sunday has two. Five in all. By the ending, we are really getting good at this job. Such is life in ‘The United States of America, “One Nation Under God”