In my childhood, the Christmas program at Plunkett’s Creek Missionary Baptist Church was a central event in our holiday celebration.
Soon after Thanksgiving Day, the children’s Sunday school teachers, usually under the direction of Mrs. Johnnie Mae Denton, would assign “parts” in the program. On a given Sunday, a strip of paper, one inch wide and as long as a sheet of paper is across, would be handed out to each child. On it were typed, or neatly printed in blue ink, words to be memorized and recited.
They started them early at Plunkett’s Creek. Even the four- and five-year-olds were given a “part” in the program. Of course their lines were short. The beginners were given words to recite like, “Shepherds came,” or “The star shone brightly,” or “There was no room in the inn.”
As a child grew older, the lines were longer and the words more complicated: lines like, “And all went to be taxed, everyone to his own city,” and “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” and “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
On the day of the program the pulpit was removed from the elevated floor in the front of the church, creating a small stage. A spotlight was then placed on the floor just inches from the front pew. On the night of the program, the church lights were turned down and the spotlight cast its streaming beam on center stage. I’ve looked often into that bright light as I sought to transfer holy words from my rattled brain to my stammering tongue. And I, along with many others, gained self-confidence as we performed before mothers and daddies, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and loving members of a devoted church family.
And by participating in those Christmas programs through the years, I came to appreciate in a special way the poetic beauty of the King James translation of the Bible.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” (Luke 2:6)
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” (Luke 2:8)
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,” (Luke 2:13) For my part, more stirring words have never been recorded.
As each child delivered his (or her) message, the Christmas story came to life. It was simple, pure, and …yes … holy.
When the last line was said it was time to orchestrate the gathering of the nativity. As the narrator began to read the Christmas story from Luke, Chapter Two, an empty manger was placed in the center of the stage.
Then, softly, quietly, Joseph; and Mary, with the baby Jesus in her arms, made their way from the back of the church. Mary tenderly laid the babe in the manger. Then they stood reverently close by.
In all the years I participated in the church program, I never got to be Joseph. I felt like Joseph was an unsung hero of sorts. But I did get to be a shepherd.
Dressing up shepherds and wise men was no easy task. I can remember the prodigious effort that went into finding enough robes for the annual Christmas program.
Church members scoured the community in search of enough bath robes to fill the bill.
When the search was completed, we had terry cloth robes, cotton robes, corduroy robes and even some smoking jackets. I wasn’t sure what a smoking jacket was. In my boyish head I assumed you wore one when you were smoking. Smoking jackets were shorter than bath robes, which meant they would fit a ten-year-old boy just fine. I remember two in particular. One had black satin lapels and was made of shimmering gold material. The other was silver with grey stripes and silver glitter patterns. A shepherd would never wear a smoking jacket. But they looked mighty fine on a wise man. The magi were known for dressing up.
We shepherds wore beards fashioned from knitting yarn and, of course, we carried a walking stick. Once the shepherds were gathered around the manger scene, it was time for the wise men.
My brothers, John and Dewey and their friend, Jim Owen were the wise men for many years. They came from afar and right down the isle of the church singing, “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we’ve traversed afar …” They wore gold and silver crowns and presented their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
When all were in place, everyone present joined in singing, “Silent Night, Holy, Night.”
As a little boy it became very clear to me there was something very special about this baby – made more special by visiting shepherds sent by angels. And in a universe filled with stars, one bright star stood out above the rest and hovered over the stable, then guided kings traveling from afar.
In this child, in one indescribable, indefinable, unfathomable act of love, God set into motion a series of events that would impact human history like no other. And in the end, Adam’s tragedy would be swallowed up in Christ Jesus’ triumph.
It is no wonder that the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Copyright 2016 by Jack McCall