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Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Confessional…

Nativity sceneBut, thinkin’ of the things yer’d like to see upon that tree,

Jest ‘fore Christmas be as good as yer kin be!

Eugene Fields

When I was eight or nine years old, our family attended a log church in a small Eastern Washington town. The structure had been there for so many years the first tier of pine logs above the footing, either because of decay or termites, was crumbling; wood pulp spilled from the core of the logs and spilled out on the lawn. That was the condition of the church when I knew it, and all the years I did know it, this deterioration seemed static and never seemed to worsen. The little church was nondenominational, a community church, and my parents most likely attended because  it was the closest fit to their Methodist comfort.

My vision of myself in those days derives from a black and white photograph, real or imagined. I am wearing a white shirt with those fifties’ style pointed collars. My hair is combed neatly, slicked down, I suppose, with tap water, my forelocks combed into a neat little wave breaking on my forehead. I am smiling in the picture. The smile does not look posed and appears to be the genuine smile of a happy kid. There may or may not be a few freckles marching toward my nose. My front teeth are small blocks of ivory, waiting for my mouth to grow into them. But there is something in the twinkle of those eyes that goes beyond boyish mischief, something, perhaps, akin to malice….

Do I know that kid? Because of the unspeakable thing he did during   that Christmas, I wonder if I even care to. “Whatever were you thinking then!” I question. But when you’re an eight year old, thinking is so new to you, you don’t do much—if any—of it. I saw a play recently that dredged up from memory the deplorable incident, and while I can offer no excuse for what I did that night, thanks to the production I attended, I think I can understand at last why I might have done it.

Mostly they’re called Christmas “pageants,” the little plays children in the congregation perform before and to the delight of their parents. I don’t believe my eight year old ears had ever heard the word “pageant” in those days. A“program” was what it was called in our church, and one evening the week before Christmas our mediocre talents were called upon to reenact the Christmas Story. In Book-It Theatre the other day I saw the performance of a play about such a  church Christmas program, and while I was greatly entertained, I came away with a bit more insight into an eight year old’s behavior-- my own.

Those who direct a church Christmas programs usually have a limited pool of talent from which to choose and this restriction often results in the little performers being typecast: last year’s Mary is again this year’s; cast as a shepherd or wise man once and the same little victim must reprise the role year after year, and that can lead to a mutiny among the talent. The play I saw was about just such a rebellion, the protest of a strong-willed little boy (Owen Meany) who refused to be the Angel of the Lord one more time. (It’s dark and scary up there,” Owen protests about his being winched up into the flys every year. The little mutineer wins out and is recast as the baby Jesus.) My insight did not come from Owen, however, but from his best friend Johnny. Johnny complains (to the audience only; to adults he is meek and obedient) he is tired of being cast as Joseph in pageant after pageant. His gripe? “Joseph never does anything. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t sing. He just stands silent throughout the entire play!”

Neither did the Joseph in our Christmas program. I should know—I was the program’s Joseph that year. Dutiful Joseph—Silent Joe. In the Christmas story about all you can say for Joseph, son of David, is he’s just there. The only thing he really does is follow God’s directions and then his wife, Mary. He asks no questions, doesn’t even “ponder” in his heart as Mary does. A follower, that’s what Joseph is. He doesn’t flap heavenly angel wings, carry a shepherd’s crook,  bear gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh…. Joseph stands at Mary’s side as dumb as the gentle beasts that surround the manger.

In the previous year’s program I had had a singing part, stood before the audience and belted out the carol “The Gentle Beasts.” The following Christmas my Joseph just sat there next to a makeshift manger in which the baby Jesus, an “eyes open and close” doll, proxy for Our Savior the Lord and on loan from some little girl, lay in slumber. Now where’s the glory in that? And soon Joseph became so very bored. As the the program unfolded around him, Joseph of Nazareth reached into his robe pocket and discovered an eight penny nail ( to this day how the nail came to be there I have no idea), turned it over a time or two in his hands, and then proceeded to tap the head of the nail on the head of the baby Jesus: “Tap, tap, tappety tap” tapping throughout most of the program. That’s all I remember about the night’s performance. Who played Mary and why she didn’t come to the defense of the Son of God, (very unmotherly of Mary), I cannot say. Why the Angel of the Lord didn’t visit swift retribution upon my head remains a mystery still.

The year before, my rendition of “The Gentle Beasts” brought me praise and acclaim. My Joseph the next year earned this thespian quite the opposite: a severe scolding by two of the prominent church mothers, staid and proper ladies both (“You should be ashamed of yourself treating the Baby Jesus like that in front of the audience, in front of us! Shame, shame on you! Well, we never…!”). Strange, but I can’t recall being chastised by my mother who surely herself must have been chastised and embarrassed by the recalcitrant behavior of her son. To this day whenever I recall that  tongue lashing by those two avenging mothers, I feel my ears redden.

I was not among the cast of next year’s program. I was not asked to perform then, nor do I remember ever being asked again. Any subsequent participation was in the role of spectator. And it wasn’t until recently I realized just how steeped in irony my rude antics, shamefully involving a nail, must have appeared.

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The Ripple wishes one and all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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