Christmas Play – Human is Where God Goes
I have performed in many, many Christmas plays. But my most brilliant role came at the tender age of 10, when I played the Angel Gabriel – the Archangel Gabriel. It came down to me and Jimmy Sizemore. However, due to superior talent and the fact that my Aunt Rachel made the costume, I got the part and Jimmy played a shepherd. Yes, Gabriel was my most brilliant role.
I mean this quite literally. Gabriel lit up the stage. My costume, consisting of a pleated starched sheet was bright white, trimmed with reflective silver. My halo was silver tinsel and my wings were wrapped in golden foil. When the spotlight hit me, (and it hit me in all my scenes) I practically ‘shone round about’. I was brilliant…and liked it.
Enough of itchy sheep costumes. Enough of faintly-cologned, earth-toned bathrobes belonging to someone else’s father. Enough of lumbering about the earth on dull, hairy legs. Those roles were so horizontal, so vermin, so pedestrian. But Gabriel had wings! So vertical, so non-mortal, so ethereal. Gabriel was anything but biological – can you even picture an angel burping or scratching? Gabriel was not ordinary, he was other and bursting with light.
And that’s not all. I had soaring lines: “Behold!” (I liked saying behold). “Behold! I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Mrs. Jordan, on the organ, would bring up a nice crescendo when I said, “…great joy.” I imaged the audience gazing at me when that spotlight popped me into a scene. I’d appear suddenly, standing on stepladder which no one could see, on account to the black cloth draped over it. Everybody would have to assume I was flying. Would they be able to restrain a certain flutter of astonishment, a throat-catch of awe? I think not.
But even that wasn’t all. I knew enough Bible to know that people were often afraid of angels. Mrs. Tissell even instructed the shepherds, “When the light shines on Gabriel, shield your face and quake.” I could definitely envision Jimmy Sizemore looking up at me, ‘sore afraid’ and quaking. So… hovering, shimmering, quake-inducing… Boy, this was going to be good.
On the night of the play, I arrived early. Backstage was all moms and kids, costumes and safety pins. Mrs. Tissell made me sit over to the side to protect my wings from getting bent-up in all the bustle. Jimmy and the other shepherds kept slapping at them as they walked by. I decided I’d ‘shine a little extra glory round them’ later. But mostly, I sat there thinking about my big final scene.
There was loud murmuring in the sanctuary, as the adults arranged themselves in pews. The lights went down and Mrs. Tissell began narrating. The play unfolded. On cue, I visited Mary. Then, accompanied by an entourage of singing angels assembled in a ‘host-like’ fashion, I delivered the announcement to the shepherds. However, in my opinion, they didn’t quake very convincingly. I shone well, but was saving my most intense luminosity for the final scene – when the whole cast assembled half-circle around the manger.
I was to appear last – capping off the scene atop the aforementioned step-ladder, positioned center-stage directly behind Mary and Joseph. The light would hit me, the music would swell, I’d raise my arms and the whole cast and audience would sing the first verse of Silent Night. Then all the lights would dim except for the spotlight on me and the Holy family – for dramatic effect. Then a slow fade, leaving the audience with the impression of heaven blessing earth. And, of course, a seared-in mental image of me as a hovering, shimmering, quake-inducing being. Yeah.
But as the moment approached, I began to feel warm. My wings were heavy and slouching. I itched. I was thinking about climbing that ladder in my floor-length white gown. I hadn’t practiced it. Would I step on the hem, and strip myself – revealing my plain t-shirt and jeans? I wasn’t feeling glorious verticality; I was feeling gravity.
The ladder was wobbly because one leg was on an extension cord. For fear of falling, I stopped one rung short of the top. The spotlight hit me square in the face and instead of ‘shoning down brilliantly’, I squinted awkwardly. I couldn’t see the audience response. I listened, but couldn’t tell if I heard astonished gasps or chuckles. Forced to lower my eyes, I saw the cast below me. I remembered to raise my arms, but being off-balance, I only got them up half-way. The music rose and we began to sing.
I thought I would feel like the center of things. But I didn’t. I felt decidedly off-center, distant from the personified sheep and cow, the magi, Mary and Joseph. Even Jimmy and the shepherds felt far away. The light, that I had so coveted to be the shiner of – was shining on them. In fact, the whole moment was shining on them. Christmas was for them, those smelly, itching, pedestrian, carol-breathing humans. The point of the glad tidings, I could see now, was that God comes to human. The Christ-child, God’s gift, couldn’t come any closer. The baby was swaddled in the same biological, breath-drawing, nervous-systematized form as everyone in the little church. I was Gabriel, mighty Gabriel, but I found myself looking longingly into something that wasn’t for me. The Incarnation, it seems, is for the carnate.
I suddenly had the urge to get down off my high ladder. I didn’t so much want to shine. I wanted to be shone upon. I didn’t want to be the one saying, “Behold”. I wanted to be the one beholding. I didn’t want to bear glad tidings; I wanted to hear them. I was homesick for my humanity.
It has been many years since I climbed off that wobbly ladder. But since then, I’ve climbed back up many others. It seems I’m always looking for something to prop up the illusion of hovering, of shimmering, of not being afraid. I’m always dressing up in some kind of costume, hoping to cover my need. But every ladder wobbles. Every costume, no matter how bright, is just a cover-up. Eventually, I trip on the hem and expose who I really am, an earth-toned, hairy-legged pedestrian.
Yes, I am an earth-toned, hairy-legged pedestrian who has this curious longing to be filled with light and covered with love. Odd. I started off thinking the way to attain light and love was to escape the human condition. And now, I was seeing that the human place is exactly where I want to be. Human is where God goes. That’s the point of the Incarnation – how had I missed that?
So, if I want to be filled with light and love – and Oh, how I do. I just need to climb down off my high ladder, take off my costume and be found a human – itches included.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.