Sometimes a familiar sight can be seen with new eyes. Hope comes when you realize that Jesus, the baby in the manger, was truly God the Son, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Fr. Richards stepped back from the microphone and looked over the sea of faces. The actors were all seated in their costumes in the front rows of folding chairs in the parish hall. The turbans and ancient robes they wore looked very much out of place in the new building that still smelled of fresh paint.
Joey elbowed Samantha, who was seated next to him in the front row. “How come Fr. Richards called us ladies and gentlemen? I’m seven!”
“SHHHHH!” Samantha looked at Joey sternly. “He always calls us that, Joey. Remember, he is the pastor here; he has to act extra nice!”
Samantha’s hushed tones trailed off as Mrs. Williams, the children’s choir director, stepped in front of the young choir of shepherds, angels, and wise men.
“Thank you, Fr. Richards. Your support means so much to each of us.
Joey elbowed Sam once again, who responded with a fiery glance.
Mrs. Williams continued. “Tonight is the dress rehearsal. This is our last chance to be sure everything is ready for tomorrow evening’s presentation. I want to be sure we all know our lines well.”
Samantha adjusted the halo perched on her head and fidgeted with the buttons on her long white gown. As the tallest girl in her class, she was picked to play the lead angel, the best and biggest part in the whole play. Over the years she had played a variety of roles in the annual Christmas pageant, including a shepherd, a young mother carrying a baby, and, a few times, even one of the barnyard animals. Now, at 12, she was glad to have a better role.
“Stop fidgeting, Sam!” Joey said to his sister. Five years younger than his sister Samantha, he had been promoted this year from a lamb to a shepherd on the hillside. While he didn’t have to say anything, Joey was glad to be standing and holding a shepherd’s crook. Last year, he just crawled around the stage, saying “baaaah!”
This year’s pageant was going to be something special. Mrs. Williams had surprised her youthful cast by announcing that Mr. Stringfellow was going to bring some of the sheep from his farm to use in the play. Fr. Richards was not happy about it at all, but Mrs. Williams seems to get her way whenever she gets something firmly planted in her mind. “She could convince wallpaper to fall off a wall,” he heard his own dad mutter more than once after hanging up from one of Mrs. William’s phone calls. Joey thought he would really like to see that.
A shrill blast from the whistle that Mrs. Williams always wore around her neck ended Joey’s daydream. As she called out names from her command post at the microphone, the children hustled obediently to their positions so the drama could begin.
Joey shuffled over to the left side of the stage in front of the cardboard hillside and aluminum foil stars. He stood next to a small pen made of scrap lumber that would hold the sheep. High above him, Samantha hung like a prize fish from a cable that Mr. Oswald, the janitor, had rigged up to raise and lower the herald angel. The rest of the angels were kneeling on a scaffold set up behind the mountain scenery and which was borrowed from Smith’s Paint and Supply Company. Mrs. Williams was going “all-out” this year!
Joey looked up and waved at his sister. “Don’t get sick up there!” He whispered loud enough for her to glare back in a wordless response.
“Brothers!” she muttered to herself.
Once in place, Mrs. Williams waved her clipboard to the man standing in the back of the hall. He opened the door and waved. Suddenly the parish hall was filled with all kinds of unusual noises. One by one, Mr. Stringfellow and his three sons gently guided fives lambs through the maze of folding chairs and into the sheep pen he had built on the stage.
“Give ‘em a few minutes and they’ll settle down, Henrietta,” Mr. Stringfellow shouted above the bleating, “they’re a little nervous, but it’ll wear off… then you can start your rehearsing.” He and his boys went and sat down in the front row in case one of the sheep decided to make a run for it.
Joey’s eyes got as big as saucers. He had grown up in the town and had never seen sheep this close before. He was only a few feet away from them and one of the sheep started pressing his head through the wood railing and trying to sniff Joey’s robe. Joey moved a few inches away but the sheep kept trying to push his head through the rail.
Bill Wesley, who had just turned thirteen and was Joey’s hero because he played soccer and the trumpet, walked to the microphone and began his work as narrator.
“Now, in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”
Even at his young age, Joey knew the story by heart. He had been in the Christmas play ever since he could remember. According to his mom, he even played the baby Jesus just after he was born, but he, of course, couldn’t remember. He liked to hear the story; in fact, he never tired of it, even after the yearly pageant, Christmas services, and his dad’s reading of the story after Christmas dinner. He did like the story, but the pageant was not his favorite thing to do.
“In the same region there were shepherds…”
This was their cue. Joey tried to walk around as he was supposed to, but the sheep had worked his head all the way through the wooden rail and was chewing on his robe. As he moved, the sheep wouldn’t let go, but kept chewing insistently on the fabric. He tried to swat the sheep’s nose, but that didn’t work either. The stubborn sheep was not going to let go.
There were various re-tellings of what happened next, depending on who you talked to. The best Fr. Richards could make out from all the stories was the following.
As Joey swatted the sheep’s nose a second time, the animal reared back and broke the wooden rails of the sheep pen. This sent the shepherds scattering everywhere and scared the other sheep. Bleating and “baaahing,” they all began running around the stage and then separated, running out in different directions. One jumped through the cardboard mountain and another tipped over the cradle in the manger – which, thankfully, did not contain the baby Jesus. The third lamb had run through the manger scene, down the stairs, and through the sea of chairs toward the back door. He was followed by the one who had been eating Joey’s clothes.
The fifth one, however, headed behind the stage and startled Mr. Oswald. He was so shocked that he let go of the rope holding the herald angel, who promptly fell into a pile of straw while her fellow angels were jumping up and down on the scaffold, screaming in terror.
When all was said and done, the scenery was toppled, the manger in ruin, and the sheep were finally corned by the Stringfellow boys. Well, all except for the hungry one, who was now chewing on Mrs. Williams’ dress.
Mrs. Williams, by the way, had stood motionless through the whole disaster; her whistle still hanging from her lips and not believing what had just taken place.
Outside of the pastor’s office, Joey could hear Mrs. Williams crying and Mr. Stringfellow laughing behind the closed door. It really wasn’t his fault – not really, but he still felt responsible. The door to the office opened and he heard Fr. Richards say, “Not to worry, Henrietta. Tom Oswald said he could have everything back to normal for tomorrow night’s performance. It will be fine, you’ll see.”
Still dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief, Mrs. Williams walked down the hall and out the door. Joey was glad she hadn’t seen him.
“Well, young man, I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day. Let’s go find your dad, mom and sister so you can head home.” Placing his hand on Joey’s shoulder, they walked silently down the hallway, up the stairs, and into the new parish hall. Samantha and her mom were hanging the last costumes on the rack in the storage room – now dressing room – near the stage. Joey surveyed the disaster as they walked by. It was hard to believe that just a half hour ago all was right with the world.
That night, Joey dreamed of sheep. They were hanging over his head wearing halos, running around him chewing on his clothes, and blowing whistles that hung around their necks. He was glad when morning finally came.
At breakfast, Joey could tell that Sam was still mad. She wasn’t mad at him, just mad. This was her big year for the play and it might end up a disaster. She sat quietly, stirring her oatmeal and staring out the dining room window. Joey wasn’t hungry either. He slumped in his chair, hoping he might just be able to come down with an incurable disease before tonight’s performance. He didn’t want anything more to do with sheep, shepherds, mangers, or babies. He wanted to be out of the pageant business.
His mom and dad walked in silently to the kitchen table, each carrying a steaming cup of coffee and a plate of food. There was a knock at the door.
Joey heard his father invite Fr. Richards in, offering him a cup of coffee and roll. The pastor joined the family around the kitchen table.
“Guys, I’ve been thinking,” he said, after a few minutes of sipping coffee and eating a few bites of food. “Last night gave us an idea of what might have happened on that first Christmas. Can you imagine how frightened the sheep might have been when all those angels appeared? Just think how they may have scurried around. This was the most important night in history and something very different was taking place. Who knows, one of the sheep may have even tried to chew an angel’s gown!”
Fr. Richards paused, detecting a slight grin on Sam’s face and a little more light in Joey’s eyes.
“The important thing is that the shepherds went and saw the baby in the manger and they believed! So many people this time of year celebrate Christmas and miss the baby. Remember the pin some of the people are wearing on their coats this year, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season?’ Well, that’s the whole point of it. It’s about more than just falling into a pile of straw.”
Samantha giggled and then caught herself. Joey sat up a little straighter. Both set about to eat at least a little of their oatmeal.
“No matter what problems people face – even big ones like sheep stampedes…” Sam and Joey laughed. “No matter what, the important thing is that we don’t let that keep us from seeing the baby in the manger. He is our Savior and Lord! Tonight a lot of people are counting on you and your friends to lead them to the baby. Don’t let anything stop you from this important ministry. Even Mr. Williams is coming tonight.”
Both children gasped. Everyone at St. Bart’s knew that Mr. Williams hadn’t been to Mass in many years, ever since their only daughter had been crippled by one of those childhood diseases. Joey had heard his dad say that Mr. Williams was blaming God for it. Even as a seven year-old, he couldn’t understand how that could be.
Standing on the stage that evening, Joey kept hearing the words of the pastor racing through his mind, “Don’t let anything stop you… a lot of people are counting on you to lead them to the baby.”
Joey looked up at his sister, again hanging like a prize fish. “Do a good job, Sis… remember what Father Richards said!”
“Brothers,” she muttered as she smiled.
Bill Wesley was never in better form. His narration was the best he had ever done… all the actors were on cue… in fact, everyone was doing a great job. It looked as if this year’s pageant would be presented without incident.
After being flawlessly lowered into the mob of shepherds by Mr. Oswald, Samantha confidently called out her lines. “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
This was the cue for the shepherds. They were to walk across the stage from the sheep pen to the manger. As they walked slowly, Joey glanced out at the audience. In the front row, he saw his parents sitting attentively. They smiled brightly as they caught Joey’s glance. Next to them he saw Mrs. Williams, her eyes glowing with pride. By her side, Mr. Williams sat motionless. He looked like an angry bulldog, barely tolerating the whole ordeal.
At that moment Joey broke ranks with the other shepherds and bolted down the stairs to the floor of the parish hall. He ran up to Mr. Williams and grabbed his hand.
“Mr. Williams, you’ve got to come with me. You’ve got to come see the baby. I know He loves you, you have to go see Him! Have you seen the baby, Mr. Williams? Come with me, please!”
Not even knowing why, Mr. Williams rose and, hand-in-hand, walked with Joey up the stairs and to the manger. The two knelt down with the other shepherds and looked at the infant that was lying in the cradle.
Mrs. Williams was on her feet, her hands clasped over her mouth in horror and disbelief. Just then, Mr. Williams turned around and looked at her; tears were streaming down his face. She ran up to the platform and knelt beside her husband who was looking with new eyes at the child before them.
Rarely at a loss for words, Fr. Richards quickly stood and walked up to the platform. “‘And the shepherds went back,’” he declared, “‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.’ As you may now understand, some of us tonight have seen the child, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, with new eyes.
"So I ask each of you: Have you seen the baby? Have you really looked upon Him who is the Savior and Redeemer of the World? May all of us leave this hall with a greater view of the babe in the manger. May all of us here truly see the baby for who He truly is.”
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
Respect for Women: That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
Vocations: That many young people may accept the Lord’s invitation to consecrate their lives to proclaiming the Gospel.
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