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The show must go on

The Life Less Traveled

December 21, 2011
You never know when you're going to need an extra baby Jesus this time of year. Take the Christmas of 2008, for example. I needed five baby Jesuses, well, actually six, but who could have predicted the last one?

It was the biggest Christmas show of my life. My team got to take over the Christmas Eve services for our church, which was a huge deal. Five performances; 13,000 people. They even televised the thing a week later. A smarter man would have used a doll for baby Jesus, but not me. I couldn't settle for anything less than a real, live baby. This was Jesus' birthday, for crying out loud, a gold, frankincense and myrrh kind of day. A cheap, plastic doll would never do.

Remember that old show business maxim, never work with kids or animals? Well, I threw that right out the window. Sure, infants are unpredictable. And, yes, our actress who played Mary had never actually held a live baby before in her life. But as long as she didn't drop the baby, what could possibly go wrong?

Any good director will tell you the quality of a production depends on the quality of the cast. I knew if we found the right babies, we would be home free. So, I went straight to the expert, our nursery director, to help me cast the show.

"I need five professional babies," I told her. "Give me the good kind, the kind who don't cry."

Sure enough, she rustled up five great babies, each apparently a budding actor in his or her own right. Rehearsals went without a hitch.

Then, we landed on opening night. The big moment had arrived. Twenty minutes into it the lights came up on baby Jesus No. 1. We all held our breath and then witnessed show business magic.

The baby was a pro. No crying. No stinky diapers. Nothing but cuteness. My live baby gamble had paid off, making me look like a genius, until, that is, we came to the second night.

I knew baby Jesus No. 2 was trouble the moment he arrived. I think I heard the kid yelling before he even got in the church. He was fussy, his mom said, adding that she just needed to take him in another room and try to feed him.

Sure, no problem, I thought. The show starts in an hour. No big deal. Surely he'd calm down by then, right?

I waited out in the house, watching the room fill up. The ushers brought out extra chairs, but it still wasn't enough. It was standing room only. I'd never seen the church that full.

Then, just before the service began, the director frantically ran up to me and said, "Baby Jesus is screaming his head off. We need a stand-in!"

A stand-in? Where was I supposed to find a stand-in at this late hour? It was time to call in some favors.

At this point, I should mention that I just happened to have an extra baby lying around that year. My youngest daughter, Kate, was just a couple of months old. I tried to weasel her into the show earlier, but my wife would have none of it. Now, she didn't have a choice. It was time for baby Kate to start earning her keep.

I didn't have much time. I knew we were only moments away from the Bethlehem stable scene. If I didn't move fast, Mary and Joseph would be sitting there empty-handed. Sure, they had a Cabbage Patch plastic Jesus waiting in the wings, but, c'mon, this was Christmas!

I didn't know how I could possibly find my family in the dark, packed auditorium, but, in what I consider to be a genuine Christmas miracle, I ran right into my wife in the back of the room.

"Quick," I said, "Swaddle that kid. The show must go on!"

We ran down the back hall with Kate as if we were taking her in for a touchdown. With only seconds to spare, we stripped off her PJs and passed her over to the stagehand who delivered her right into Mary's arms just before the lights came up on Bethlehem.

Suffice it to say, she stole the show and saved the day. In my completely objective opinion, she was the best baby Jesus since the original.

OK, so you may not be producing a church musical this season, but, with all of your shopping, baking and family events, you may feel like you're staging a major production. You don't have to be on a stage to have plenty of Christmas drama in your life. You may even be facing some fussy characters who refuse to cooperate with your vision of a perfect Christmas.

But, like baby Kate, you may also have an opportunity to stand in for Jesus. After all, He came into a broken world to reach out to the hurting and the lost. This Christmas, if we keep our eyes open, we may just get the chance to do the same. At the very least, we'll all bump into people who need some hope and grace.

Playing Santa is one thing, but playing Jesus? That's sure to make a Christmas you'll never forget.

Jason Byerly, a 1990 graduate of Crawford County Junior-Senior High School, is the children's pastor at Southland Christian Church near Lexington, Ky. He and his wife have two daughters. For more, visit www.jasonbyerly.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/jasondbyerly.

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