The following is an excerpt from my new book “Sparrow” which will be released on the Kindle publishing platform on New Years Day. The story is about a small country church that rallies around an African American family which has been targeted by a white supremacist group. The following scene describes the children’s Christmas program put on by the church.
A holy hush descended on Dalarna Baptist as Luke walked out and faced the fullest gathering yet in their sanctuary. More than seventy had come to watch the Christmas program, the Sunday evening before Christmas. Most were relatives of the children, so Luke didn’t kid himself into thinking some sort of revival had broken out. Still, it gave him a small vision of what the future might look like. He liked what he saw.
Matt Gardner, one of the newest attenders, connected his video camera to a tripod while his wife, Jennifer, hunched down in the front pew and performed a quick diaper change on the King of kings, played by their infant son. She then wrapped him in swaddling cloths and handed him over to her thirteen-year-old daughter, Jillian, cast as the Virgin Mary, both for her age and for her willingness to cradle her two-month-old brother during the play.
The decision caused no small scandal in Bethlehem, for earlier in the year Ruth had promised her oldest daughter Caroline the role of Mary. Ruth assuaged Caroline by pinkie swearing her in for the following year. This in turn, led to the locking in of the part of Mary for the next ten years or so, that each of the Dalarna Baptist girls – those born and in utero – would get their turn. Ruth then took Caroline out for a hot fudge sundae to seal the deal.
The sanctuary was as nicely decorated as a Baptist could make it (without toppling into Lutheranism.) The windows were framed in spruce boughs, and electric candles glowed from inside them. Two colorful banners hung on the front wall, one above the organ proclaiming For to us a child is born, the other above the piano declaring His name shall be called Immanuel.
Centered in the chancel behind the pulpit stood a ten-foot balsam fir, classically wrapped in white lights and silver garlands, and overspread with colored ornaments which were clustered mainly toward its bottom half. (Hanging the ornaments was the children’s responsibility, and that was as high as most of them could reach). A golden star crowned the peak of the glorious evergreen, which just touched the bottom of the sanctuary’s lone stained glass window.
After Luke welcomed everyone, he invited them to stand and join in singing several carols. Ethel and Marge played beautifully, and when they came to, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, Tim Duval stood in the back and let loose a majestic flourish on his trumpet (a talent Tim had kept to himself, until Roxanne ratted him out at the decorating party.)
Luke then took his seat beside Amber and picked up his own video camera. The lights darkened as Heather Mohr walked nervously to a microphone positioned stage right, and began the narration for the Christmas program.
It was one of a million such retellings of the Great Story going on that month across the earth. And most everyone in the room that night had heard that story probably a million times themselves. But there was something magical about this story that fell like soft snowflakes on one’s face, and a person could never grow tired of hearing it.
That the Virgin Mary was a peasant girl, and Joseph a simple carpenter, and that God’s right-hand angel appeared to them – and not to King Herod or the self-assured Pharisees of the Religious Right or the cynical, Ivy-League Sadducees of the Liberal Left, and then the best choir heaven could muster broke through the skies and sung the Messiah’s birth, not to an audience of elites in formal wear and jewelry clutching their hundred-dollar-a-seat ticket stubs, but to impoverished shepherds shivering in their torn tunics smeared with sheep-dung – insured that the Story would be told and retold for the rest of time.
The Story held such power it didn’t even have to be told well to soften a stony heart. Some churches that night were dazzling their congregations with Christmas-tree shaped-thousand-voice choirs, and others with menageries of real animals in living nativity scenes. (One church in Minneapolis actually had a line item in its budget for “Camel” which it leased from the city zoo each December.)
It didn’t really matter that at Dalarna Baptist the foiled angel wings kept slipping off, and Joseph squirmed with a wedgie, and poor Ruth had to keep bobbing and weaving aerobically on her knees in the front, waving this child off stage and begging that child to come. For to us a child was born was a promise that left no one out.
And that’s why as the children sang their final song, holding aloft battery-powered candles (two of which didn’t work), tears fell from most every eye. Luke had to wipe his own eyes before he stood to dismiss the audience with a closing benediction.