THE Bible provides uneven and sometimes contradictory information regarding angels. But no matter how mighty or how merciful the heavenly bodies, the earthly replication of these immortal creatures usually requires vigorous applications of gilt, spangles, chicken wire and pastel polyesters.
The finished products are the angels with the crooked halos. Ranging in age from 4 to 6, they are an integral part of that "disappeared" extravaganza (thanks to the 1st Amendment), the Christmas tableaux in public schools.
But in my childhood, Angel was the role I was born to play. I was just 5 years old when my father, the director of this earthly opus, cast me in the angel part. It was for the local high school Christmas concert and pageant. There were three of us youngest ones. We were to enter from the side of the gym and reconnoiter in the center. Following in our train were the shepherds and Wise Men, their factotums, the Holy Family and the greater angels. My father was no slouch when it came to working casts of thousands, and this was no exception.
As we processed, a 500-voice choir under the direction of its awe-inspiring directress, Sadie Rafferty, was to sing Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus, followed by "Silent Night," accompanied by a full orchestra. As we grouped for the final tableau, the house lights would dim, and we would pose and shine under spotlights which, covered with bastard amber gel, would throw us all into golden relief. Wow!
And I, the 5-year-old cast member, felt as if I were already in heaven. I was petted and praised by the teen cast members and costumed by the inspired head of the high school art department. In my costume of flowing baby-blue silk, with wings of chicken wire, covered by gauze, silver spangles and simulated feathers, I thought I really might take off at any minute.
I coached the two other lesser angels, Sally, a plump, blond 6-year-old, and Kathy, a hard-bitten, red-headed 5, in hand placement and mien, so determined was I not only to perfect my role but to perfect theirs as well.
Nothing went right during the dress rehearsal. The Wise Men were costumed to the point of immobility and had to be unwound and trimmed; the shepherds were reproached for joking around and Joseph for being out of step. The orchestra and choir were rehearsing elsewhere. And since the dry run was in the morning, we didn't even turn on the lights.
So while I was busy being a practice angel, all prayerful hands, dignity and wings, I had no inkling of the nature of the actual event. Even just before the real thing, it was impossible to tell. Waiting backstage, we, the littlest angels, were so teased and praised and fluttered around by the big kids that we were in ecstasy. As a result, we were hyperkinetic and a little sick to our stomachs.
"Three minutes," the stage manager called. My part of the procession rushed into the tunnel under the gym that took us to the other side, and then, on the first "Alleluia," the double doors were pulled wide and we began to move out across the basketball court, toward the creche in the jump-ball circle.
Each group had its own follow spots on the gym floor. As I stepped out into mine, a low hum of approval and a warmth I cannot to this day find words to describe washed over me and, blinded and confused, I tripped and fell, spread-angeled, onto the floor before an audience of 3,000!
No one moved to help me up. Caught in the light, the shepherds and Wise Men could do nothing but hold their poses, and I had to rise, gather what dignity remained, and walk on entirely on my own.
I know it was the longest five-minute walk of my life, but finally I reached the tableaux in the middle, and stood below the Virgin. And then the bundle in her arms squirmed and one arm waved out of the blanket, and the baby cried.
There had been only a doll during the rehearsal. But this was the real thing, and he looked to be a wailer. To me, so soon after my own fall, it was unthinkable that the baby should even think it could cry. That would spoil everything!
"Don't!" I said, pointing instinctively.
The baby grabbed my finger, held on and stopped crying. Outside the pool of lights, thousands of voices united into one resounding, "Ahhhh!"
"Si-lent night, ho-ly night," the chorus segued into the closer. "All is calm, all is bright."
I was redeemed when that baby's hand clasped my reproving finger!
And for that moment we, the actors, were all lifted by the sound of the chorus and orchestra and that intense, golden light, into something so transcendent it was like being inside a star, radiating, and almost holy.
Gwyneth B. Howard writes from Darlington.