Welcome back from however you spent the Thanksgiving holiday! I wanted to pull back to give you the best Christmas present I could–and it’s one I’ve kept under my scarlet-red cowboy hat for four solid years and can’t keep there another moment. Today I want to give you the story of a Christmas pageant like none you’ve likely ever heard of.
A Huge Pentecostal Church. This building could have easily been mistaken for a particularly ostentatious funeral home. This flagship of its denomination was painted creamy-white inside and out, had columns–as in multiple, all over the building–and white marble floors. The sanctuary was carpeted in thick, soft blood-red shag. An astonishing amount of gold-painted and -plated stuff could be found inside the church–along with huge reproduction paintings of stuff like Jesus Knocking on the Door. By Pentecostal standards, the church was wildly successful. Even on regular Sundays, parking was impossibly inadequate.
Christmas 1989. The height of the Satanic Panic. 1989 was a couple years after the publishing of This Present Darkness, so everyone thought demons and angels were everywhere and battling it out over people’s souls. Chick tracts and comic books were considered valid sources of information about, well, everything. And diagrams were king. (I found this today and I’ve got no idea what bees live in this poor guy’s bonnet, but they must be very loud and frightening.)
Me. Yr. Loyal &etc. Correspondent, at the time a totally true-blue TRUE CHRISTIAN™ college student living in the dorms.
Angela. My best friend. Her parents were die-hard Catholics from Spain, so she usually got mistaken for Mexican. She’d converted in high school and was the reason for my own initial conversion. She was at the time of the pageant dating the hottest and most eligible bachelor in our church, a blond Adonis from upstate New York whose parents were beyond blithering horrified at this romance on every single level. Later she’d complain about how hard it was to find frilly gingham maternity dresses.
Biff. My bombastic then-boyfriend. He had gotten “exorcised” there during a rowdy Sunday night service and eventually persuaded me to rejoin it. He was considered quite a golden child, one I was considered extremely lucky to have bagged as a mate before he’d even joined the church (at which point I’d have been competing against super-skinny pastors’ daughters). He had a large box full of diagrams.
How It Went Down.
To this day, I still don’t know how someone talked the senior pastor (a genial fellow with more sense and fairness than one normally finds in men in his position) into it. We didn’t usually do these sorts of things; they were regarded as suspiciously Catholic. So the idea of a Christmas pageant wasn’t something anyone would have expected him to approve. I mean, he didn’t even allow electric instruments or amplifiers into the worship band.
(Segue: the pastor had allowed our enthusiastic worship minister to have a fully electric/amplified band on the dais once that I can remember in all the years I attended there. It’d seemed okay but bizarrely out of place to me at the time, but I could tell it’d greatly rattled the older members. Imagine like if the kids in Footloose had managed to have their dance and a riot had broken out and a dozen kids had been murdered. He was that kind of shaken. Like OMG what have we DONE to ourselves and our CHILDREN, what have we allowed into our SANCTUARY kind of shaken. In retrospect, I’m amazed that the music minister didn’t just get fired.)
Back then, we didn’t even know what megachurches were–much less that Houston already had at least one of the beasts. So we had no idea that megachurches were spending tons of money on pageants even in the 1980s. As far as we knew, most churches just had a big choir presentation.
But we really needed a big draw.
We’d gone through all the usual routes: the revival services, the lock-ins, the pizza blasts, the “dating seminars.” All of them were simply thin-veiled sermons aimed at sucking in whatever gullible marks our church’s members could trick into attending them. A Christmas pageant checked everything on our list. Most of us had family members and friends who weren’t Pentecostal, and it was common even then–as it is now–for there to be a great deal of church-hopping between members around the holidays when families got together. Someone in my church’s upper management clearly thought that having a big Christmas pageant would tip the scales in our favor.
They were right, for what that’s worth, but I guess they forgot about the follow-through requirement: the pageant should make those people more amenable to joining the denomination of the group putting on the pageant–not scare them away forever!
More Hardcore Than Thou.
After that “88 Reasons” Rapture scare, my church had a lot of young people in our church who’d converted into it–and were therefore considerably more hardcore than the kids who’d grown up in the church’s sheepfold and had never strayed beyond its confines. Our leaders really had no idea what to do with these kids, either. Most of them didn’t fit in anywhere.
When those kids found out about the Christmas pageant, they were all over it like white on rice. Maybe in retrospect that should have clued in the pastor that maybe this pageant idea wasn’t a good one.
Biff plunged into the idea of the pageant like it was his everything. He had been in the Society for Creative Anachronism before his conversion into Pentecostalism, and like pretty much all SCAdian college kids since forever he’d always tried to find ways to relate whatever classes he was taking to whatever his re-enactment interests happened to be. So he’d been taking a lot of metalworking classes to learn to make his own plate armor. He’d initially wanted to eventually get into heavy fighting (he was of course the swashiest of swashbuckling light fighters, so the heavy fighters in our area tended to think he was just the cutest l’il thing ever when he talked like that). Literally every single serious fighter I knew, heavy or light, was doing something similar; I knew a young woman who was making her own sword, and most light fighters got into fencing for at least as long as it took them to learn that real live Olympic-style fencing doesn’t look much at all like SCA-style light fighting.
After conversion, Biff kept up with his metalworking classes because of that chapter in the New Testament that talked about “putting on the whole armor of God.” Despite having a real Maximilian-the-robot aesthetic, he had made some good progress toward his dream of making his own suit of plate mail.
I was busy with the demands of school, so I was largely unaware of what was going on until Biff crowed in the fall that he’d won the coveted position of “Roman Centurion #1” in the pageant.
Turning Reality a Few Degrees Off-Kilter.
That threw me, because I’d been raised Catholic and there weren’t many Roman centurions that I remembered in the story of Jesus’ birth. Lambs, yes; pregnant women somehow riding donkeys for dozens of miles while about to pop, yes; worried Jewish guys trying to find shelter in a town full of Jews trying to register for that census that was (I learned later) simply an author’s device for getting Jesus from one required place to another required place to fit two diametrically-opposed and equally-misunderstood prophecies in early Christian folklore, yes; various shepherds who came in from the surrounding countryside to witness the birth, yes.
Some stories took a lot of creative license around the folks the worried young couple encountered in their search for an inn room; others went a little further afield to talk about the Massacre of the Innocents v2.0 and the visit of the Three Magi to the court of King Herod and all that. One super-popular Christian storybook from my childhood told the whole Birth of Jesus story from the point of view of a lamb who was guided by the Star of Bethlehem to the manger itself. (It’s a seriously cute little book, albeit extremely iffy by modern standards of child safety and animal behavior as well as in its understanding of ancient history.)
Not a lot of Romans appear in even those narratives.
Like most Christians, Pentecostals tended to concern themselves a lot more with the death of Jesus than with his birth; the violence and drama of that story was a lot more exciting and titillating than the uncomfortable sympathy with the poor and the quiet dignity in the other one. Don’t ever say that Christians can’t find a new bottom for whatever barrel they happen to find themselves in, though. Apparently someone in church had either written or gotten their hands on a story that injected political oppression of Jews by the evil Romans who’d occupied the city. Their script put all the violence and drama of the Crucifixion story into the myths about the birth of Jesus.
In this gritty reboot, Mary and Joseph are busy trying to find an inn room in Bethlehem amid yet another tense standoff between the Jews and their hated Roman overlords. Mary almost gets killed more than a few times before the power of the proto-Good-News in her womb brings about a change of heart on the part of the Roman soldier who was hassling them so much in the first part of the play. In a least one scene there was a hint of potential sexual assault.
Plus there were songs.
This was seriously what my church thought was going to make a great Christmas pageant for the whole family!
And Biff–already dangerously radicalized and politicized–auditioned for the part of “Centurion #1,” who was a low-level leader of a little sub-unit of soldiers and the primary person hassling Mary and Joseph. The character was avaricious and vicious, brutally oppressive and cruel–and ambitious beyond all imagining. Biff, of course, swept the director off his widdle tootsies and got the part. He couldn’t sing for beans, but there was, simply put, nobody better for the role. So he put his medieval-style platemail breastplate on over his Roman-style toga and laced up his homemade gladiator sandals and immediately began talking about bringing a real live sword of his into the church for the part.
See, Biff loved swords and daggers. He’d already had a huge drama earlier that year over his arsenal when his dorm-mate in the adjoining suite, who was a gay man who according to Biff just totally wanted to persecute TRUE CHRISTIANS™ cuz he totally hated “God,” had almost gotten him arrested for having weapons in his dorm room. What a meaniepie! (According to Biff, when the police finally caught up to him they were kinda embarrassed at having to hassle such a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ over that rule about weapons because obviously they knew that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ weren’t dangerous to anyone–except maybe demons, amirite? Years later I’d have reason to wonder if it’d really gone down that way.)
My best friend Angela won the coveted part of “Mary.” With her incredible Southern Mediterranean good looks–black curly hair, golden-brown skin, huge dark eyes that looked like a deer’s and framed in huge long sooty lashes, and a short, curvaceous bundle of femininity all the way around–and her super-demure breathy Jesus-is-my-EVERYTHING demeanor, it was hard to imagine anybody else getting the role but her.
(I can’t remember who got the role of “Joseph,” but really, he’s kinda an afterthought in most tellings of the story anyway. Nobody knows exactly what to do with Joseph. Also, Biff’s character had a name; I just can’t remember what it was. It might have been Marcellus, based on the classic movie The Robe, especially considering the thematic similarities the stories share, but who knows.)
Role Requirement: A Trusting Nature.
I was at the church toward the beginning of December for a Bible study while a pageant practice was going on one fine evening. That was the first time Biff had brought the sword in; it was a fairly plain shortish affair that fit fairly well the general look of a Roman-style gladius. When my little group was praying in one of the two little rooms off the main dais that day, two women came in from the main sanctuary and knelt to pray. One asked the other, “Is it going to be okay for him to do that–to draw a sword? What if he misses?!?”
“It’s going to be fine,” said Angela, who was praying near me. “I know he won’t miss. Jesus wouldn’t let that happen.” She got up and headed into the sanctuary. One of the women asked, “Who was that?” because the room was kept dimly-lit.
“Angela,” I told them. “The one he’s drawing the sword on.”
They were totally impressed and acted like they thought Jesus must have given her courage.
All I knew was, I sure as hell wouldn’t have let Biff near me with a sharp object. Dude was so clumsy that I’d seen him literally knock himself down sneezing.
I just hoped my friend was right in trusting Jesus not to let her get hurt during the pageant celebrating his birth. More ironic things have happened.
A Sword for a Firebrand.
There might not be a whole lot of Roman soldiers in the whole story of the birth of Jesus, but in reality there’d have been plenty of ’em floating around. At the time of the putative birth of Jesus, Romans were in power in the area. Judea was considered a client kingdom, so they had their own independent king–who in Jesus’ day was Herod the Great. He died around 4 BCE. The Romans were good about allowing Jews to govern themselves for the most part, allowing Jews to handle their own affairs within limits.
Despite that relative freedom, the Jews of the first century weren’t thrilled with Roman rule. There were periods of unrest aplenty. The Palestine that Jesus would have grown up in was one marked by near-constant uprisings and apocalyptic predictions. One such uprising’s leader was Simon bar Kokhba, but there were others–making Jesus simply one of a long line of wild-eyed Jewish prophets who were totally convinced that “God” was going to help the Jews throw off the yoke of Roman rule–and eventually ended up swirling into the primordial soup that might eventually have produced the character of Jesus himself.
Most of us nowadays are used to Christians who are feeling particularly whiny-pouty pointing to that explosively-volatile era as a cautionary tale for today–comparing themselves to Jews under Roman rule. Occasionally a Christian pushes against that comparison, but it’s all but accepted as canon nowadays.
The Christmas pageant my church put on was part of the beginning of what we know today as that super-belligerent end of Christianity. This was their first thumping of their chests at modern notions like politeness and boundaries and consent. And Biff bought into those ideas 100%. He would often regale me with stories about how he was upping the suspense and drama of the script with what he called “historical accuracy.”
I seriously don’t think the pastor had the faintest idea what was coming his way. I didn’t even possess the vocabulary needed to warn him.
The Big Night.
When I went to the church for their big pageant, I found the parking lot totally full. We’d already been asked to carpool by the pastor, who anticipated a totally standing-room-only audience. And he’d been right. I’m guessing only about a quarter of the people there were regular attendees. Everyone else was either friends or extended-family of one of those attendees. Many were from United Pentecostal (UPCI) churches from around the area, but quite a few weren’t even fundagelical.
Nobody in Biff’s or my family had chosen to attend, of course.
As Biff’s girlfriend, I sat near the front of the sanctuary–with Angela’s parents. I did mention they were from Spain, right? Super-traditional people, very gracious, very wary of these unfamiliar surroundings. They acted like our church members might spring upon them at any moment with claws and fangs bared.
The dais made a good stage. It’d been decorated with inexpensive set dressings–hangings on frames and the like. I’d helped make some of them, since I’d done a lot of prop work in high school.
As the story unfolded, though, Angela’s dad began leaning forward. He didn’t like the playwright’s break the cutie approach to tension-building, especially when the cutie in question was his darling youngest daughter. “Mary” got pushed around and insulted all through Act 1, even at one point enduring Roman soldiers’ leering at her and throwing food and other such stuff at her. Angela’s parents exchanged concerned glances.
So That Just Happened.
The play hinged upon one very pivotal moment in Act 2. Mary is trying to avoid the Romans at this point; her husband thinks he’s found somewhere they can stay, so he’s rushing from one end of the stage to the other to talk to her–while his friends keep stopping him to talk to him about stupid things. On the other end, Biff and his bullies are stalking through the marketplace harassing people and overturning carts.
Biff converged on Angela right as “Joseph” reached her. Biff’s character decided that “Mary” had insulted him, so he knocked her down (remember, as “Mary,” Angela was stuffed with pillows till she looked approximately 14.75 months pregnant). Her friends gasped and rushed to protect her. “Joseph” cried out and rushed to shield her.
As Biff snarled abuses down at “Mary,” he reached down to grab her wrist. With his free hand, he pulled his sword on her.
The crowd watching this play gasped in absolute OMFG horror.
Angela’s mom laid her hand on her husband’s arm to restrain him–I seriously thought this dignified older gentleman who reeked of Old World charm and noblesse oblige was about to rush the stage. I just stared in shock. I’d had no idea that Biff had planned to get that sword that close to Angela’s pretty neck. It was almost touching her skin. He couldn’t have scared people more without drawing a gun.
And the stunt had backfired hugely by making my church look like the kind of crazy zealots who didn’t recognize dangerous weapons when we saw them–and who had to inject violence and politics into a story that most Christians at the time clearly felt was completely above those concerns.
So this is what it sounds like when one of Biff’s crazy ideas fails on a star-destroying scale, I thought to myself.
But the play
shouldered soldiered on, its actors totally oblivious to the turd they’d sunk into their own punchbowl. “Mary’s” quiet sense of peace bothered “Centurion #1” enough to re-sheathe the sword. He flung her away and slunk off. Joseph collected his pregnant wife and got her to safety in the stable he’d found for them. Act 3 would be about how “Centurion #1” finally figured out via deus ex machina what a terrible person he was and made his way to the manger to pay his respects to the newborn King nestled therein, with the implication that he’d do his best to protect the interests of the child as long as he lived. (Oh. You’ve never heard of him in the Gospels? You must not have read them all the way through. It’s in Paul’s Letters to the Republicans, Chapter 6, verse 66.)
It was kind of a letdown though. Live steel had almost cut someone onstage. For quite a long time afterward, Biff was described as “Biff, you know, that guy with the sword at the Christmas play.”
Friends, you know the last line of this story, don’t you?
And they never tried having a pageant again.
Hell, they never even talked about doing one ever again. From then, it was just the usual tried-and-true choir recitals and gently-exhorting Christmas sermons for us.
A corrupt nightclub owner ended up stealing the plate armor from Biff eventually, by the way. So there’s that, at least. Also, I’ve heard of at least one megachurch that’s put on a pageant very similar to what I’ve described here today–though their Mary and Joseph got a real donkey to ride.
Not with a bang but a whimper, as they say.
Featured image by Brickset via Flickr CC BY 2.0