When the call for volunteers went up at our church in November for the first-ever live nativity hayride being planned, I hesitated. I can’t act; I can’t build sets; I can’t sew. But this was going to be a pretty big production: Two wagons would carry community members through an adjacent field, stopping at several stations to watch amateur actors re-create the scenes leading up to Jesus’s birth. To do all that, it sounded like they really needed help.
So I shuffled up to the Big Events director after church one Sunday and let her write my name down on her pad of paper under “Actors.”
“Can you do a speaking part?” she asked.
Absolutely not, I thought.
“Sure, if that’s what you need,” I said, trying to sound helpful and nonchalant but feeling regret wash over me. I don’t like speaking in public. Heck I don’t even like being in public.
But two weeks later I picked up the master script of this live nativity hayride play and my part was highlighted in orange: I was an angel. Not just any old angel, either, but the angel who brings the shepherds good news of great joy.
For a moment I smirked at the idea of officially being called an angel. “I’m an angel,” I practiced saying with authority. Then I realized I couldn’t just stand there and look angelic, I had to say 57 words. (I counted.) Luckily they were words I’d read and heard pastors and singers and actors say countless times over the years. I knew these words by heart. Except when I tried to say them without looking at the script I realized I didn’t know them by heart, and every time I opened my mouth to practice all I could hear was Linus in my head saying “Lights please” while holding his trusty blanket and telling everyone “what Christmas is all about.”
I was about to toss aside the script and worry about it on rehearsal day when I noticed a directional note above my lines:
[Angel: Up on the top of the hill, lifted up in the air on the “teeter/totter” above the grasses, light shining on angel]
Why was “teeter/totter” in quotes, I wondered. Was it just going to be some plank of wood balanced on a boulder? I had visions of being accidentally catapulted onto the wagon, my cardboard wings mangling innocent children. The whole thing made me laugh out loud and I couldn’t wait to hear what in blazes they were rigging up to get this old angel to “fly.”
But at the first rehearsal a couple weeks later, learning my lines and teetering on a totter suddenly became the least of my concerns. It was there that I got the full scope of what my scene entailed: Two 12-year-old shepherds and a couple of live sheep.
Sweet baby Jesus, I was going to spend three hours in a frigid field in the dark of night with two fidgety pre-teens with huge wooden staffs, and somebody’s borrowed livestock. Oh, and I was assured that there would be a big barrel of fire at each station to help keep us warm between performances. (Or to more easily burn the grumpy angel’s cardboard wings when the shepherds got bored, I just knew it.)
The boys weren’t too keen on remembering their lines (I know, hypocrite), but what they seemed to lack in short-term memory they more than made up for in acting ability, as every time we rehearsed me appearing before them, they fell to the floor and literally convulsed in fear. This made it impossible to keep a straight face, and it’s really hard to sell the sheer magnitude of the line “Today in the city of David a Saviour has been born” when you’re giggling.
So they were advised to tone down the fear and play up their lines, and I was advised to dress warmly and everything would be fine. I had faith that it would, and that faith played out the night of the dress rehearsal, not because of the shepherds’ performance in front of the director, but because of their performance in front of us while we were waiting around to do our scene. In the hour and a half we were outside that night, the boys entertained me and my fellow Heavenly Hosts with 20 minutes of Monty Python, delivered flawlessly; three sheep-related knock knock jokes; three other jokes of questionable taste for a church-related event; two riddles I still can’t make sense of; and at least 5 minutes of a Jeff Dunham stand-up comedy routine with Achmed the dead terrorist. Between the two of them they had one sentence to memorize for our play. I stood there in stunned silence wondering why I ever was concerned that they might not remember those piddly 18 words about going to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
And indeed, they didn’t disappoint; they nailed that line every time.
On the night of the first performance the church buzzed with activity. People I’d only seen sitting stoically in the same pews Sunday after Sunday were now wearing long robes and talking in character. I quickly found my appointed classroom-turned-dressing room marked “Angels and Shepherds,” where everyone seemed extra-concerned about being cold. The temperature was hovering somewhere around 38 degrees and dropping, and we knew we’d be outside for at least three and a half hours. So halos were perched atop white winter hats. White robes were squeezed over winter coats. Cardboard wings were worn over three or four layers of clothing.
We angels were looking more like an army of Stay Puft Marshmallow Men than Heavenly Hosts. But still, we were cheery, if not cherubic, and eager to earn the wings we were wearing.
When everyone was dressed and assembled we piled into a haywagon and made the bumpy ride over to our stations, wishing each other luck. The Wise Men, whose original costumes didn’t fit over their coats, were wearing royal blue Snuggies. The “Pregnant Mary” clearly had a lumpy pillow strapped to her waist, and Joseph was wearing a Penn State parka over his robe. (He assured me he took off the coat each time a wagon came by.) Still, we were there. Over 60 volunteers, all of us with busy holiday responsibilities and families at home, giving up a little time and a lot of body heat to bring the magic of that holy night to a field in Cumberland County, PA.
Call it cheesy or homespun or just plain hokey, but I found it inspiring.
When the two shepherds, three other angels and I were dropped off at our station as the sun set, we met our costars, the sheep.
“I think we should name them,” I said of the friendly ram and skittish ewe that were, thank the good Lord, confined in a small round pen surrounded by lit tiki torches. “We’re going to be hanging out with them all night.”
“I already did,” one shepherd said. “The boy sheep is Baaaaaab.”
I laughed, and instantly really liked these kids.
Someone named the ewe Mabel and everyone made their acquaintance. I thanked them for my wool mittens and sweater before we turned our attention to our “set,” which was essentially a set of risers hidden behind a camouflauge hunting screen, behind which we angels were supposed to appear. The plan was to crouch down on the ground behind the screen when we saw a wagon approaching, then stand and walk up the risers to effectively hover over the shepherds (and Baaaab and Mabel) to deliver the good news.
Crouching on the frozen ground while trying to keep four sets of huge cardboard wings from getting tangled was a trick, but we managed. When the first wagon load of people finally came, everyone delivered their lines flawlessly. After the wagon had bumped on down the field toward the manger, we all stood up from our crouched positions and cheered. For the sheep, of course.
“Great job guys!” one angel exclaimed to Baaaab and Mabel, who seemed unfazed.
“You didn’t show up to a single rehearsal, and still you nailed it!” I said, impressed.
The shepherds were supposed to walk to the manger after their line and join the actors there in song. But by the fourth wagon they’d had enough of high-tailing it a half-mile back and forth, opting instead, like good shepherds I suppose, to stay with their sheep. “I sang enough,” grumbled one as he lay down his staff and fiddled with the headband over his headdress.
The fire barrel was a nice touch to keep us warm between performances, though you can’t get too close to a sparky fire when you’re wearing flammable cardboard wings. We spent most of the evening dissuading one eager shepherd from adding yet another log to the fire, lest we angels had to fear actual flames jumping up out of the barrel, not just sparks.
And so the night passed with us telling jokes and family stories, petting sheep and looking for constellations. We wondered aloud how the rest of the scenes were going and whether everyone else was having a good time. Eventually clouds rolled in and talk turned to the fact that coyotes were known to roam around these fields at night. One angel told a story of a coyote taking out a dog right at a children’s bus stop nearby. Suddenly I was excessively thankful for the tiki torches, as if they served as any real deterrent from a pack of wild animals deciding to have us all for a late-night snack.
Every 25 minutes or so our conversations would be cut off by a shepherd who, pulling lookout duty, would yell “A wagon’s coming!” I’d crouch on the ground in silence, my breath puffing in a cloud, then rise up and stare through a blinding spotlight at two kids as I told them, again and again, about the greatest promise ever kept.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the city of David a Saviour has been born, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Nine times I said it, and each time it got more real.
“Do not be afraid!”
“A Saviour has been born!”
“You will find a baby.”
The last wagon came through a little after 8 p.m. and afterward everyone in my scene high-tailed it toward the church to warm up. Someone had to stay with the sheep until they were picked up, so I volunteered. I wasn’t all that cold or all that antsy to get inside. When they’d gone I stood heating my mittens over the dwindling fire, then pressing them to my cheeks to warm my face. I watched the sheep circle their pen, and I thought about coyotes.
But mostly I thought about my lines, and about the baby in a stable. After the first few times I hadn’t heard Linus in my head anymore, only me. And after the next few times I hadn’t heard my own voice anymore, but imagined an actual angel, the real deal, telling ordinary people about the most extraordinary thing.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds, and that command echoes today for us all. Do not be afraid of the cold, or the dark, or the unknown. Do not be afraid of fire, or coyotes, or even sheep that suddenly begin to move frantically around and around in their pen when you’re left alone with them. (Although for the record that really can be scary.)
Do not be afraid of having to crouch down, or speak loudly, or feel silly. Do not be afraid. Because this good news, this great joy, isn’t the climax of a play, it’s history. We lived it. We are living proof of it. And it is indeed for all people.
Amen and Merry Christmas.
|I can’t stress enough how itchy that halo was, a sure sign I’m not ready for it. Yet.