We have been busy this weekend.
After a few days of both Robert and I being felled by Gastroentestinal Virus Lite, we emerged from our cocoon for rehearsal for Plymouth U.C.C.'s annual Boar's Head Festival, in which a motley cast of at least a hundred or more descend on a downtown church and put together one of the, hands-down, most meaningful worship services I have ever attended. There is only one weekend of rehearsal, and one night of dress rehearsal before performing this medieval nativity story, but the cast know their parts so well and are so accomodating in teaching the newbies, that in some form of Christmas miracle, the story always unfolds without any major hitches.
When Robert and I were dating, we went to see the festival. And I reminisced about the years I spent in the show growing up...starting as a caroler, moving on to a king's serving girl...graduating through the parts as I grew into new costumes. At the age of eleven, I fixed my eyes on the costumes of the "Ladies," the women who played the medieval guests of the Lord of the Manor, and who wore the shiniest, and most respendent of the festival costumes. Sometimes I would stand near them backstage, and reach my hand out to touch the pearls which draped from their dresses. I always wanted to be a lady, and I remember whispering in Robert's ear that night three years ago of my deep childhood desire.
The next year when the letter went out to recruit staff, our names were on it with our roles, "Lord and Lady" written afterward. Robert teased me that day, "Told you I'd make you a lady one day..." And then he tried on the tights he gets to wear with his medieval tunic. An entirely new sensation for him. And perhaps not entirely unpleasant?
I have come to enjoy the first day of practice, reaquainting myself with the characters who play some of these longstanding parts. There's the fellow-lady, the one who wears blue, who tells all the kids to be quiet backstage in the most annoying of tones, and then laughs louder than anyone else as she plays euchre with the wassailers. There's the sweet lesbian couple who play the part of peasants carrying eggs and bread. There's Ricky, the archer, who sings each part quietly under his breath.
It doesn't take more than an hour or so of practice before we become cognizant of Phil's presence, Phil the inn-keeper/cook, a man who has been in the festival each of the past 31-years, and now travels back from his home in Chicago to participate. Phil, perhaps the nerdiest cast member, who has affixed himself to Robert and me like glue and tells us long and detailed stories about what has been on Oprah lately. Phil, who occasionally laments that he has a "lard ass," something I'm not sure I would broadcast to someone I know only marginally. Regardless, Phil is a fixture in the festival, and I admit that my eyes lit up when I saw that he was indeed back again this year (even if it did mean dodging him at the cast party, where last year he kept Robert and me busy regaling us with tales of his trip to France circa 1978).
The final scene of the Boar's Head involves all of the cast members approaching the stable. Lords and Ladies mingle with peasants and serving girls. The choir quietly sings the song "Let All Mortal Flesh" and we each journey to the front of the sanctuary to get a glimpse of this child who has come to redeem us, who has come to set us all free. We walk forward individually...a huddled mass, but each on our own journey. We don't touch. We just walk slowly, reverently.
In the darkness, as we reach the manger, we bow, and in the crunch I reach for a hand to hold, for the final scene calls us to hold hands with those around us as we leave the stable, each renewed by our encounter with the Christ child. We leave brothers and sisters. Often it is Robert, just at my elbow, kneeling as well, whose hand I find in that gaggle of people, but as I reached out in the dark last year, I felt an unfamiliar hand which grasped mine tightly. When the lights came up, I turned to see Phil, holding my hand on one side as with his other hand he supported a man who plays a withered woodsman. Phil stood proudly, but I saw the wetness of his eyes as he faced the congregation. "Yes, here we are. A huddled mass of humanity who have limped toward the Christ child and come away changed," I thought. And then Phil and I walked down the aisle, the strains of "O Come All Ye Faithful" echoing in our ears and I remembered that I, like my brother Phil, am one of the motley fools who gather here. I, like my brother Phil, bring my lard-assed self into this place. And I, like my brother Phil, come away a new being. Thanks be to God.