Have a very Merry Christmas from the Reese family. Here is a Christmas tale for you…
It was time to prepare for the Christmas nativity play at church and the youth group was in charge of the show. The group really had risen to the occasion. A couple of talented students put together an elaborate set, while others carefully practiced their choreography and lines to meticulous perfection. The costumes were bejeweled and beautiful, and were the subject of no small amount of discussion among the ladies of the church with an eye for fashion. Many of the youth group members spent hours in preparation, each according to their own talents, and, by nearly every measure, it was all coming together splendidly.
Vern Stephens was in charge of the manger, which seemed like a pretty simple task considering the grandeur of the rest of the production. But, in the eyes of most, Vern was a pretty simple guy. Vern had a long track record of coming up short in notable church productions. Everyone still talked about the time in third grade when Vern fumbled and ultimately forgot his lone line in the Easter pageant — “Christ is risen!” Though Janis Miller clearly stole the show with her performance, Vern’s disastrous, stammering, stuttering delivery of “Uh, ummmm, Jesus….uh, oh geeez, Christ…ummm…” before running off the stage left the most lasting impression on the congregation and the youth group members.
In the fifth grade Christmas extravaganza, Vern had wisely been moved “behind the scenes” where he was in charge of the curtain. Unfortunately, he lowered the curtain too early as the wise men entered from stage left. The third of the wise men tragically tripped over the misplaced curtain edge, which tangled in his too-long robe and led to a catastrophic frankincense spill on the baby Jesus. The congregation gasped.
The youth group pastor knew that Vern had a good heart, and wanted to include him in the program in a way that he could contribute to the effort, without destroying it. Vern was very quiet, as usual, when the youth pastor met with him to discuss the play, but he left smiling in response to his role as “manger engineer.” Vern liked the sound of that. The youth pastor hoped that 14-year-old Vern was up to it. After all, the manger was in the center of the whole show.
Vern loved working with wood and he could build the manger in his dad’s heated farm shop. Harvest had finished up, so Vern and his dad focused on the task at hand, working for many hours, using wood from an old oak that had fallen in the woods on the farm. Vern would not flub up this time.
The end product was beautiful. After sanding and staining and nailing and gluing, the manger was a work of art, fit for a king. It was simple, but flawless. The wood grain, the stain, the craftsmanship — it was perfect. Vern’s dad put his arm around him and told him how proud he was. They paused and looked at that handcrafted manger silhouetted against the florescent glow of the buzzing shop light overhead. For Vern and his dad, there was no greater Christmas gift than that.
At the dress rehearsal, the costumes were stunning, the set was a work of art and the performers were perfect, but the buzz in the youth group was about the manger. Not only had Vern not messed up, but he had triumphed. Even Jimmy Swanson (who never missed an opportunity to remind everyone of Vern’s third grade debacle and the “wise-man incident”) complimented Vern on his manger. Vern smiled.
Vern got to the church early, to make sure the manger was just right for the show. It was perfect. As the first of the actors were just starting to arrive, Vern added just a bit more straw, and leaned forward for one last look to make sure it was just right. As he did, he lost his balance and fell right on top of the manger. When the cloud of flying straw, cracking wood and a tumbling Vern settled, there was not a sound in the church. Jimmy broke the silence.
“Old Vern has done it again and ruined another Christmas show. Great job!”
Vern scrambled to pick up the broken pieces, but with no success. The manger was ruined. He ran from the church with tears in his eyes, but a determined look on his face.
The curtains had closed across the stage as the pews started to fill in. No one saw Vern feverishly working behind the curtain with crusty baler twine, a hammer and a few rusty nails he’d found in the back seat of his dad’s farm truck in the parking lot. Within moments, he had wrapped the twine around the broken legs and hammered in a few cross pieces of scrap wood from the crunched masterpiece of a manger. He ran from the stage just as the curtain opened.
The crowd gasped at the wonder of the set and marveled at the costumes and the acting. There were several present, though, (including Jimmy) who couldn’t help but chuckle to themselves when the rickety manger groaned a little and shifted dramatically to the right when Mary laid down the baby doll wrapped in swaddling clothes. The twine was just barely holding it together.
Vern sat slumped in the very far corner of the very back pew, trying to stay concealed in a shadow. His head hung low. His dad came and silently sat down next to him.
The shepherds crossed the stage, then the wise men, and with each step of each actor, that rickety manger seemed to lean just a bit more. Soon, most of the crowd was paying more attention to the manger, waiting for it to collapse, than the play.
The actors all came out for a final bow, and when they stood up, there was a groan from the manger and it shifted back to the left, but the twine held. The crowd watched in nervous silence.
The actors left the stage and the youth pastor came out to offer a brief message:
“Thank you all for coming tonight. You all look so nice in your holiday finest. First, let’s all give a hand to the talented youth group for this great performance.”
Everyone clapped, the manger shifted again.
“I want you all to take notice of how flawless this set is. The students spent hours making it look absolutely perfect. And, can you believe how dazzling those costumes were? What an effort from this group. Just fantastic. What can you say about those actors? They never missed a line. Great job you guys. I am really proud of the youth group. The church is decorated beautifully as well. Thanks to all of our volunteers for that.
“At this time of year, we are so busy preparing, buying gifts and wrapping them in flashy paper and making everything look so wonderful, but to me, that is not Christmas. This play went almost perfectly and it looked absolutely beautiful. But to me, that is not Christmas. You all want to get home to family gatherings and drive there in nice warm cars and celebrate in your beautifully decorated homes. But to me, that is not Christmas either.
“To me, Christmas is about this manger…”
The crowd was silent and the lights dimmed. A spotlight narrowed directly on Vern’s manger that looked as if it would collapse in a heap at any moment. Vern attempted to crawl under the pew, but his dad stopped him.
“As you can see, this manger is rustic. It is not fancy, it is not strong and, it really isn’t all that nice to look at. Well, the first Christmas wasn’t all that nice to look at either. It was not fancy. It was not comfortable. It was not glamorous in any way, but it was miraculous. And just like this old manger, we are not much to look at. We are not strong and we are not fancy, even though we may try to be.
“Thanks to the real gift from that first, most humble Christmas, though, we can be strong enough to perfectly fulfill our plan and purpose in this life. That, to me, is what Christmas is all about.”
With that, the youth pastor walked to the manger and squared it up. It stood proudly holding the baby in the spotlight.
“Thanks for coming, and have a very Merry Christmas.”
This is one of three stories in Matt Reese’s book “Christmas Anthology” that can be purchased at lulu.com.