“…three, two, one, Merry Christmas!”
Four thousand twinkling lights on the fifty-foot Christmas tree came to life to the cheers of thousands of spectators gathered in San Juan Capistrano’s Historic Town Center Park. Although not residences of this quaint mission town, my husband and I found ourselves unexpectedly in the middle of the crowd, oohing and aahing at the brilliance of the lights.
We had arrived at the park earlier that day for our niece’s Hannah Montana birthday party. While ten pre-adolescent girls constructed tin-foil microphones, played pin-the-blonde-wig on Hannah Montana, and wiggled their tiny derrieres to “If We Were a Movie,” hundreds of volunteers swarmed in to prepare the area for their annual Christmas extravaganza. By the time the last of the guitar-shaped birthday cake had been deposited into the trash receptacle, downtown San Juan Capistrano had been transformed into a winter wonderland.
Swept into the excitement of the tree lighting and other Christmas festivities, my husband and I journeyed through the streets with the crowd to witness what was billed as a “Live Nativity” at Zoomars petting zoo. The zoo was about a quarter mile walk from the park, and when we arrived we saw what one would expect to find at a live nativity. A stable, a manger, angels, hay bales…but no animals.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please find a place inside the corral area, the show is about to start.”
Oh, so this is more than just a scene. It’s an actual little play.
The narrator began with the angel’s visit to Mary. The angel, a middle-aged man wearing glasses, stood over Mary with his face scrunched up and his arms spread as wide as he could make them go…and then he tried to get them even wider beyond that.
“Fear not, Mary, you have found favor with God…” I could not understand the rest of the Luke passage recited by the angel, and I probably only recognized the first few words because I knew the verse.
While the angel spoke, Mary rocked forward and back while clapping a two-beat rhythm with her hands. In fact, Mary rocked and clapped throughout the entire production, stopping briefly to walk from one stool to another with Joseph, and then commencing her rocking and clapping.
Shepherds were escorted out to stand by the rocks, and when the multitude of angels came to share the good news, only about half of the shepherds dutifully put their arms over their eyes to shield them from the angelic light. The remaining shepherds stared straight ahead, waiting to be told where to go next.
A dozen angels lined up in two rows to share the news of Jesus’ birth. The shortest angel was in a wheelchair, but he raised his arms high above his head and loudly declared that Jesus was coming…or something like that. Two angels standing in the front row folded their hands in a prayer position and never moved. Occasionally one or the other of them would dart their eyes from side to side, and sometimes they even looked at each other, but no matter what activity was happening around them, they never left their praying pose position.
Throughout the production, various Christmas carols were sung—sometimes by the special needs choir, other times by a non mentally-challenged participant. When “We Three Kings” was sung, we could see each king receiving their instructions on where to set the gift and where to stand before they were sent out to the scene. The third king was supposed to kneel, and it took a bit of effort to get him in the right spot and position.
Although no live animals ever appeared in the “live nativity,” the stable was full of jubilant angels—some laughing, clapping and jumping, others standing stoically in their prayer position—and shepherds—some with their arms still over their faces, others staring straight ahead—three kings, and Joseph and Mary—never ceasing her forward and back rocking.
When all the characters were in place, “Silent Night” began playing softly from the antiquated keyboard that had been used for accompaniment. In that hallowed moment, a strong baritone voice penetrated the night air. Though the words were difficult to understand, the melodic tone of the voice was pure. True love and adoration for the Savior flowed from the entire soul of that man labeled “special needs.”
While a solitary tear wound its way down my cheek, a single thought pierced my heart.
This is the reason Jesus came.
Author's note: The above story is true. The performers in the Live Nativity scene were part of Joni and Friends, a Christian organization dedicated to “accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community.”
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