Saturday, December 16, 2006

La Natividad

It's been uncommonly warm and dry in Minneapolis and I've had some trouble getting into the Christmas Spirit. Baking cookies for St. Nicholas Day helped a bit (it was cold that week, actually), but not so much. But I'm gradually getting there.

First was a couple of Sunday afternoon singings -- one from the Sacred Harp, the other of Christmas carols from Worship in Song. These got the right juices flowing a bit.

On Tuesday, our men's group went to the home of one of our members who is recovering from surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy for esophogeal cancer. We had arranged with his wife that our coming was OK, and we entered the unlocked door singing, of course, God rest ye, merry gentlemen. We were warned that John tired easily and that 15 to 20 minutes might be all he could take. But we ended up staying two hours, alternately visiting and singing and had to pull ourselves away at 11. There were four of us singing, and each of the others knew his harmony part, so I could sing melody and it sounded wonderful.

Then came last night.

Two weeks ago last Friday, I was at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater for a meeting concerning next summer's FGC Gathering. When the meeting was over, I went upstairs to buy tickets to HOBT's Christmas program, La Natividad. I happened to remark that I was disappointed that the leaflet seeking volunteers arrived at my home arrived two weeks after rehearsals started - I had wanted to sing in the show's choir. Not to worry, someone said, we still need volunteers, and what do you know?: I was made the star of the show.

That is, I was given the job of carrying the Star of Bethlehem, a swirling 4-foot wide four-armed star (think swastika with the arms spiraling inward) painted brilliant white and lashed to the end of a 15-foot wooden pole, lately a trunk or branch of a tree. It isn't quite as easy as it sounds -- the whole contraption weighs 15 to 20 pounds, with the bulk of the weight on the top end where the wind adds the weight of its own opinion -- but all in all it doesn't tax my dramatic talent very much.

The show is beautiful, as usual for anything HOBT does. It follows the Nativity story as told by Matthew and Luke, and is based on the Mexican Posada tradition. It begins in El Mercado Central on Lake Street with the Annunciation to Maria and José, after which the audience is herded across the street for the census which strongly resembles an immigration port of entry with all the associated indignities.

Then to the theater a half-block away where snoring and scratching shepherds on the stage are awakened by a couple of dozen of star children in blue and little white stars on sticks (can you say "cute"?) -- and the angel choir. After they leave for Bethlehem, the Star (ahem) rises slowly and settles stage left and the three Magi enter. They -- and the star -- are seen by a buffoonish but dangerously insecure Herod who defines the situation as one of insecure borders and poor intelligence, with "them" coming in "by land; by sea; by wooooman" he sneers. The Angel Choir sing the Magi's part, informing him that they seek the Holy Child, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, etc. Herod is understandably worried since he is the Decider around here thank you. He sends the big blue Kings off with the false request that they tell him where they find the Holy Child so he, too, can worship him. Ha. He fools no one.

The Star then leads the entire throng -- Magi, angels, star children, shepherds, audience, and masked oversized Maria y José riding their donkey -- north on 15th Avenue (lined on both sides with luminaria) towards St. Paul Lutheran Church three blocks away. The choir and brass band leads everyone in singing “En el nombre del cielo pedimos posada. . .” (In the name of heaven, we ask for a place to stay.) Over and over. And over. (I guess, if you're going to get a tune stuck in your head, you couldn't ask for a more lovely one.)

But there's trouble ahead. As we approach the bridge over the old railroad right-of-way that is now a bicycle greenway, we see a sinister border fence with Herod stands on a raised platform with a megaphone. He bars the way: You have no papers, no money, turn back. The scene is lit with spotlights and looks truly frightening. The procession stops just short of the fence. José three times steps forward and asks in the name of Heaven for shelter via large banners in English and Spanish; finally, he says "We come in peace" but Herod will have none of it.

While this confrontation is going on, from the far side of the fence -- from St. Paul church to the north -- comes Neighbors (led by the pastors of St. Paul) with star-torches and a giant banner saying "Bienviendos." They first appear as twinking lights but we recognize them as people as they gradually come closer and the tension at the border rises.

As they approach the fence, the Neighbors hold up signs saying "Tio" and "Tia", "Uncle" and "Aunt" and "Cousin" and "Hermana y Hermano" etc. recognizing the homeless couple as their relatives and welcoming them, despite the fence. Eventually, they hang the signs around the necks of Herod's henchmen (who are holding up the crossed fence poles) who realize that they are keeping their own relatives out in the cold. They slowly carry the poles over to Herod and gradually bury him creating an opening.

The procession is then welcomed by the Neighbors from St. Paul and everyone continues through the breach, following the Bienvenidos banner to the church. (The building is a beautiful old Swedish Lutheran church with Bible verses in Svensk on the stained glass windows; it is now predominately Hispanic.) The audience goes in, and then the Star leads in the Angels, Maria y Jose (now masked life-size figures) and the rest into the sanctuary. Maria y José take their place on a raised platform in front of the altar (and the Star). The choir sings a beautiful Mexican lullaby.

Then come the animals: a giant white crane; sheep; white deer or antelopes; mice; chipmunks; two blue-and-green timberwolves on all fours (with old Herod being the adult wolf -- we say he does wicked well); a Bison; etc. They and the Magi and the Star Children form a kind of screen around the creche, whereupon the masked Maria y José slip out and the living ones -- who we last saw at the Annunciation -- take their places along with their real live (5 week old) baby boy in arms. The adorers then part, and the congregation sees the living Holy Family and gives the most amazing sigh and gasp, and then applause. (That's when I started crying.)

Narrators then recite -- in English and Spanish -- portions of the Peaceable Kingdom prophecy from Isaiah 11 about the little child leading them, and the pastors invite everyone to a Fiesta in the church hall adjacent to the sanctuary and the band and choir start singing sprightly dancing songs and the entire congregation and performers join in.

I was pleased that my brother, his wife, and three of their four children came to the performance with us. I worried a bit initially that the political references might turn them off, but my friend Greg (one of the wisest of the wise men) talked to me at a rehearsal about the importance of the Living Word, of the Word manifesting and incarnating itself anew all the time, addressing the concrete circumstances of real people, not storybook characters. That reassured me and I stopped worrying about it.

It is so much fun being part of a production like this, but fun doesn't begin to describe it. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have a small part in giving a gift like this to our community, helping the dark streets shine with an everlasting light. I am more and more convinced that the Truth is conveyed more fully in the "arts" broadly defined -- story and literature, theater, song and music, poetry, all of them -- than in all the theological or philosophical disourse in the world, and I am so happy that In the Heart of the Beast gives me and hundreds like me the chance to participate.


Anonymous said...


I hadn't known the nature of HOBT's "La Natividad"--and how stirring an account you have provided, not only in terms of how the modernized storyline reflects today's events but also in how alive this story is in the theme of the 2007 Gathering, "...but who is my neighbor?" Not to mention the interactive, creative, and communal nature of this experience lending itself to my increasing wonderment and excitement of what miracle HOBT will create at the Gathering!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

lisah said...

Hi Paul! I'm just getting back into reading the Quaker blogs, after a fall that included moving out of a house of 11 years. Thank you for this.

I just saw The Roches last week (digression: it was my birthday, they invited people up on stage to sing carols with them, I got to share mikes with some of my teen heroines, it was glorious!). They sang an amazing song by Ilene Weiss, called "No Room at the Inn." It's from the point of view of the innkeeper. He talks about turning them away, offering them only the barn, never seeing them again, and wondering if he did the right thing. Then when he gets to the Pearly Gates, Jesus says, "I bet you're surprised that I remember you," and--just when you're waiting for the refrain to come around again as "no room at the inn, you can't come in"--he continues, "so come on in!"

A powerful song for me to hear. As a songwriter, I'm amazed by the musical and lyrical turns that help it come across in a way that's deep and funny and simple all at the same time. And of course the main thing is that it captures so much of the forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus is all about.

You can hear 2minutes of it (without the moving ending) in streaming audio at


Paul L said...

I'm a big fan of the Roches, too. I gave Youngest Daughter their Christmas album (We Three Kings) several years ago, and it's still a favorite.

Are you familiar with their album, Zero Church? I think you'd like it.

Paul L said...

I should clarify that Zero Church is by Suzzy & Maggie Roche; Terre wasn't on it.

Lisa H said...

Hi Paul! Sorry I didn't see these back when. I'm cruising the Quaker blogs again after reviving mine to post about Quaker Heritage Day.

Yes, I know and have Zero Church. The Roches sang the firefighter's prayer for forgiveness for his deeds in Vietnam. My daughter (9) also LOVES their music, and it has been a delight to share it with her.