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Third Phase: “Swihart Annual Christmas Pageant”

A  terrible commotion was coming from behind the cabin.

Our guide, Dr. Paddock, the Old Testament prof at Manhattan Christian College, had led our group down the small knoll, the journey lit only by the guide’s lantern.   We had approached a small cabin, the staged home of Mary and Joseph.   Through the window, we could discern a couple sitting at the table, apparently enjoying their evening meal.

Immediately the source of the commotion became clear, as out of the darkness a white horse appeared, running full speed toward the onlookers. Wide-eyed the group gasped in unison.  Before charging the onlookers head-on, the wild steed took a sharp left and disappeared from view.  As the horse and rider hurtled past the startled audience, we caught a glimpse of a disheveled soldier hanging on tightly, his helmet dangling precariously from his head.

Without missing a beat, Dr. Paddock turned to his shocked audience. “Now, that would be the Roman soldier, he explained. “He was supposed to tell Mary and Joseph to go to their home place to register for a census.” With great composure, he continued to explain the census and the importance of the decree to the young couple behind the window.

Inside the house, we could see Mary and Joseph packing their belongings into a cloth satchel. We watched as they came out of the house, loaded the donkey, and began to walk away.

At this point, Dr. Paddock, our guide, turned from the scene and began to explain as we walked back up the knoll to the barn, “We are going to an inn this evening and will try to find a room for the night.  Follow me.”

I lagged behind the group wanting to check on the poor horse and rider.  In the darkness I could see them emerge from the barnyard.  The soldier was carrying his helmet; his uniform was a bit torn and dirty.

“Are you ok, Ryan?” I whispered.  I had chosen this particular student as my soldier because he was a skilled rider.  He had had lots of experience training and breaking horses.  But Shiney, my Arab, was a bit unpredictable, even for an experienced rider.

“Yeah,” my soldier grumbled.  “I was talking to my sister over by the manger, and I lost track of time.  When I saw the group coming, I ran back to the horse, but just as I jumped on her, she bolted.  I guess I scared her,” he said disgustingly. Cowboys don’t like nervous horses much.  He motioned to the darkness of the barnyard. “She lost me out there by the water tank.  But I caught her again, easy.”

Yep, easy-does-it worked for Shiny; cow-boy was just not her style.  I helped Ryan straighten his costume, dust off, and get his helmet back on securely.  Shiny was still a little agitated and nervous, but Ryan would be more careful now; she had gained his respect.

The rest of my group had gone to the barn by now, so I decided to go down to the pole shed area to join another group waiting to begin their tour. A large bonfire was burning brightly and warmly.  Parents, children, and college students were gathered near the fire.

We were in, what I call, our Third Phase of the not-yet-named Bethlehem Revisited.  Every year we were finding more interest and enthusiasm for our Christmas pageant, and we found it was impossible to take one large group around.

The groups had become too large.  People could not hear what was being said, and it took too long to get the large group assembled at each of the six stations.  The best solution we could come up with was to break people into smaller groups and have guides lead them through.  It was a big step in logistics and demanded that we have guides who knew scripture and were accustomed to speaking and shepherding people.

Our little college was quite involved in those mid years, and this year we needed an actual script for the guides.  Dr Paddock the Old Testament Professor from Manhattan Christian College pulled one together for us entitled, “The Annual Swihart Christmas Pageant: December 15, 1996.”

The very first guides of this new phase were three professors and their wives from the college.  Our cast was made up of college students, many of whom had been given the choice by one of the professors of either writing an eight page report for their final Bible assignment, or being in the pageant.  Of course, we had a good supply of volunteer cast that year.  Jim, the surly innkeeper and staunch visionary of our group, called these sometimes unpredictable cast members “conscripts” which seemed to be a fitting description for them.

You could call us a rag-tag, but joyful and expectant,  a mixture of people: the visionaries, the professors, the conscripts, all under the leadership of a very mighty God who empowers with His Spirit and makes His message come alive.

The Barn Doors Open (continued from last post)

mary and joseph at barn door0001The audience quieted as the knock came on the large, rolling barn door.  Joseph was standing in the darkness.  The innkeeper appeared in the large doorway, and Joseph, motioning to a pregnant Mary sitting on a donkey close behind him, began to explain their plight:  “Please, sir, can you give us a room for the night?  My wife is about to deliver, and we have nowhere to stay.”

“Can’t you see,” shouted the surly innkeeper as he turned and waved with a sweeping arm across the audience, “we are full tonight.”

Ah, we were finally on track.  What was to be an experience of remembrance and worship was beginning to take place.

As Mary and Joseph left to find the stable, the audience was invited to join in singing, “O Come O Come, Emmanuel” in the dimly lit barn.

It was time for the audience to move to the next scene.  As together we trudged up the hillside, the beautiful voice of an “angel” caroled us singing, “I Wonder as I Wander.”  The words to the song echoed through the calm, winter air:


I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

Why Jesus the Savior did come for to die.

For poor lonely people like you and like I

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.


We joined the shepherds on the hill around the large bonfire.  The sheep were held tightly in hand.  Suddenly, Gabriel came forward out of the darkness.  “Behold!!!”  Shepherds fell to the earth in “fear.”

After Gabriel gave his startling announcement, the truck lights beamed upon the angels standing on the hillside. “Glory to God in the highest,” they declared and began singing the first part of the Hallelujah chorus.  Wonderful!!!  We, along with the shepherds were amazed.

The truck lights went out, the angels disappeared, and the crowd was invited to follow the shepherds to find this promised baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

We began our trek across the field coming to the spot where, from the pasture, we could look down on the tiny village of Keats.  Stopping to watch the village lights twinkling in the blackness of the night, we stood in reverence.

“Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see they lie.”  We sang softly and reverently, imagining we were there in that holy land the very night the tiny King was born.  Continuing the trek down to Bethlehem, we again started to follow the shepherds and their sheep.

Following shepherds should have been fine, except in the dark the shepherds, our would-be leaders, got lost, and the crowd began wandering like the Israelites in the desert.

Never before had my sheep had a strange crowd of people following them around in the middle of the darkness, nor did they know the voices of these newly acquired shepherds.

Finally, not liking the disorientation of the shepherds, the sheep high-tailed it down a ravine to the safety of their pen.  One lone sheep survived in the pasture on a lead rope. On the other end was a very determined and somewhat successful shepherd.

The lone sheep, Charlie, my gentle giant as I fondly called him, was none too happy about losing the rest of the flock.  The shepherd who was leading Charlie was frustrated.  “Mrs. Swihart,” he whispered hoarsely to me when I finally got to the front of the crowd, “I can’t get this sheep to do anything.”  Grabbing the lead rope, I nudged and pulled Charlie in the right direction until he finally headed down the proper trail.  Recognizing me, he became compliant and grudgingly allowed the crowd to follow him and his flock of shepherds down the hill to the manger.

Everything seemed to be in place at the manger.  Mary and Joseph had found the stable; Mary had birthed the tiny baby.  A peaceful, blessed scene. We had planted some angels beside the manger who ”signed” in American sign language words to “Away in the Manger,” as the audience reverently joined them.  It was all quite beautiful.

Then it was time for Mary’s monologue, a touching  monologue:

 O infant-God. Heaven’s fairest child. Conceived by the union of divine grace with our disgrace. Sleep well. .Sleep well. Bask in the coolness of this night bright with diamonds. . . .”

As you might remember, the tech guys had been working on installing a mic that was hidden in Mary’s shawl.  As she began her monologue, it was apparent that there was no amplification installed.  All the crowd could see was Mary mumbling into her shawl.

An apparent failure.  No great thoughts transmitted to the crowd that night.  In retrospect, perhaps the great Director Himself had over-ruled my inept plans.  Scripture itself testifies only that Mary “pondered these things in her heart.”

Finishing this scene, the shepherds who were bowing at the manger, left to spread the good news, and it was time (according to the script) for the three kings to arrive.

laarge wisemen0001Poised in their beautiful costumes, ready to enter the scene with their horses (no camels available) the wisemen stood in the shadows. However, a confused narrator deleted the wisemen from the script and jumped to the next scene.

Following the narrator’s lead, Mary and Joseph arose and slowly made their way to the temple where Simeon and Anna would bless the Child.

Oh, but we could not forget the wisemen in their beautiful costumes with their nervous horses!  So, while Simeon was giving his blessing, I tried to quietly, but quickly, get around the crowd to the wisemen.  A wooden gate back by the water tank was in my way.  Gingerly climbing over the old, locked gate, I stepped on a rotting slat and the entire gate came crashing down along with me.  Surely, nobody heard, I hoped. Picking myself up, I continued to the confused wisemen.  “Go!”  I whispered loudly, “Go!!”

As the crowd sang the closing carol, “Joy to the World,” the wisemen rushed in and bowed low to the ground for the final chorus.  Not the way I had planned it, but it worked, and probably the Director Himself, was once more overruling my own dramatic and inaccurate interpretation.

Later, that evening after the crowds had left, all of the luminaries were out, and the animals had eaten and were back in their pens, my heart entered into the stillness of the evening.  Quietness surrounded me.  The brilliant stars illumined the evening sky.  In the backdrop of God’s world, nothing had changed. Ah, peace, beauty, wonder even in the midst of all of the background chaos.

Work and worship are not exclusive of each other.  To work to make it possible for others to worship is sometimes difficult.  In my working to achieve the worship opportunity for others, I had missed some of that peace, yet it had been there all along:  in the scenes, through the scenes, above the scenes.

“Oh, God,” I breathed, “ let the meaning of this story have seeped into the cracks and crannies of people’s hearts so that they might have just a glimpse of the profound message of this Peace Child, who came to bring His peace to the earth.”










The First Nativity

first BR0001We led the animals down the road, Judd holding the lead ropes to the horse and pony, and I with my bucket of grain for the sheep. The beam from the flashlight Judd held in his free hand lit the way through the darkness. At the bottom of the hill, we turned in to the pole shed area which had become the designated spot for our first nativity program.

The pole shed area boasted of nice round bales that were stored in the shed.  Those bales and the old shed would be the perfect area for our endeavor.   With a concrete slab near the fence and feeding troughs along the edge of the concrete, this area must have been Oscar’s winter feedlot when he farmed here.  The tall, long metal three- sided shed made good shelter, not only for the cattle, but also for hay and farming equipment.

The meadow was familiar territory to our animals for we had on occasion brought them down to graze  the rich Brome.  It was easy to lead them in through the gate and up to the shed.  They were probably thinking it was going to be an adventure in grazing.

The germ of an idea had grown into a plan, and that plan was being carried out by all of our Wellspring group. The beauty of community! Imagining together, working together, and supporting each other as we live out various aspects of God’s truth.   This is true worship.

Preparation was pretty simple. One of the mothers had found a pattern for cardboard angel wings and had made some simple white costumes. There would be a Mary and Joseph in bathrobes and shawls and a baby wrapped in a nice white blanket, with a few little shepherds to stand by the sheep.  The script was simple scripture from Luke, and the songs were carols that we all knew.

We tied the horses near the hay and coaxed the sheep near to the manger where a “shepherd” would guard them carefully.

Someone  had already hung a couple  lanterns and had built a fire in the fire pit close to the manger.  A soft flickering glow from the fire added to  the rustic scene.  As smoke wafted out into the small meadow, the nostalgic smells of campfires added to our anticipation.

Gathering around the fire, we  waited for everyone to arrive. Slowly the moms and dads, children and college students began to join us around the fire.

We were ready. Moms and Dads lifted the two and three-year-old angels up on the large bales where they perched (or sat) in expectation of the unfolding scene.
To begin, we distributed a simple white sheet with the verses we would read from Luke, interspersed with a few carols.  The first reader began: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .   .”

The second reader continued: “4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, . . . and when the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

Now we focused on the manger. Ah, the simple, the quiet, the holy. And we sang quietly, “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

“All is calm, all is bright.”Yes the quiet and the calm surrounded us.

We continued through the rest of the story, the sheep and little shepherds standing guard over Mary, Joseph, and the babe in the manger.

At one point we were interrupted by one of the little angels protesting loudly, “Stop! Mommy, the horse is eating my hay bale!” We all giggled, someone repositioned the horse, and we continued with the next reader.

 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.. . .  
 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying , “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Now was the angels’ time to sing their hearts out. “Angels we have heard on high . . . .”   I watched in amusement as one little angel  filled her lungs, and sang at the top of her pint sized voice, and I wondered  what God might have in store for this little angel. Today that litle angel, Leta, is a grown-up angelic singer and server in the kingdom of God with The Salvation Army. Just one story of so many of those little angels who are serving God as adults today.

We finished the evening with the rest of the passage, ending with verse 20: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

After putting out the fire in the pit, and gathering up the horses and sheep, we headed from the meadow to the road and back to the house for hot chocolate. And so we also”returned” glorifying and praising God for all we had seen and heard. Yes, this was an experience we wanted to replay in our memories for a long time.  Little did we realize the legacy we had begun.