The Larson Chapel is a lovely stone building in the center of the Lautenberg University campus. The chapel once stood downtown, not half a block from the old county courthouse. Then a generous (and slightly loopy) alumnus decided that the chapel would look better at Lautenberg U. He bought the chapel and paid to have it moved stone by stone from the city square to the tree-covered campus. There Larson Chapel has stood for nearly a hundred years.
Albert Neugebauer was the Lutheran Campus minister at Lautenberg U. He belonged to old Christ Lutheran Church downtown. In fact, Christ Lutheran stood on the spot where Larson Chapel had once been. Christ was one of four “Christ Lutheran” churches in the city, so people affectionately called it “Christ on the Corner. “
The folks at Christ on the Corner had a special concern for Lutherans at Lautenberg U. It was historically a Roman Catholic institution. Members of Christ on the Corner were afraid some of their young folks might be infected with the alien Romish theology. So they hired a half time lay person to bring the true Lutheran gospel to the benighted campus. Albert was the latest edition of that fortunate person.
It was Christmas Eve. Albert walked toward the Larson Chapel. It was the first time he would lead Christmas worship there. A few students were staying on campus during winter break. Most happened to be part of Albert’s little flock. They begged him for services on Christmas Eve. He offered to transport them to worship at Christ on the Corner. But they insisted that it simply wouldn’t be the same. They loved their little stone church and their tight-knit community
The chapel was in sight. Snow crunched under Albert’s boots. He thought about his little congregation. In the beginning, he had such high hopes. He longed for a church filled with theology students, a choir composed of music majors, and faculty members who would be stirring and credible guest preachers. All of that happened. But it happened during daily mass In the campus auditorium.
For some reason, most of the Lutherans were theater majors. Fine folks all. But as Albert’s grandfather—the sexton at Christ on the Comer—would say, they were all “about a quarter bubble out of plumb.” They didn’t want a “normal” Christmas Eve service. They wanted to act out the Christmas story, complete with script, costumes and special effects. Albert rolled his eyes, took a deep breath and (against his better judgment) agreed.
They were already at the chapel door! Albert shook his head and sighed. The crowd looked like a collision between a camel caravan and a Renaissance festival
“Merry Christmas, Al!” caroled Sarah Potter. Clearly she was the Virgin Mary, ready to deliver at any moment. Brian Bingum dressed as Joseph, complete with a tool belt over his Bedouin robes. He thought the cultural contrast was a powerful artistic statement.
Brian was studying theater construction, so he built a wooden donkey to transport his betrothed. When Brian pulled on the reigns, the donkey’s eyes lit up. A tug on the donkey’s mane produced a braying that caused passersby to believe the poor thing was dying. A switch under the left ear controlled the tail. When turned on, it spun like a propeller.
“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Albert replied. “Let me get the key so we can go in.” Several groups used the chapel during the week. The university administration, however, would allow only one key. So that key rested in a small hole in the rock above the great double doors. It had been a foolproof system— until tonight.
“Oh, good grief,” Albert sputtered. ‘The key isn’t there! Now, how are we going to get in?” He felt the anxiety of the group go up as the temperature dropped.
H. Randall Hanson produced a cell phone from beneath his robes. The “H” stood for “Herluf,” although Randy revealed that only within the confidentiality of the confessional. “Call Campus Security and I’m sure they’ll let us in.”
Albert did a double-take. “H. Randall, what are you supposed to be?” He wore a pointed wizard’s hat. His robe was fluorescent gold covered with sun, moon and stars. He carried a staff with a bulb on one end that flashed when he tapped the ground. “I’m one of the wise men, Al! Can’t you tell? They were magicians, weren’t they?”
At that instant, Albert grasped his situation. He was surrounded by magicians, belly dancers, Roman soldiers, angels, and a herd of livestock, all anatomically correct and walking upright. He dialed Campus Security at record speed.
No one answered. Albert suspected some well-lubricated merrymaking down at the secunty office. The message said that in case of emergency, he should call the local police. At the moment, Albert wouldn’t have made that call for a million dollars
“I’m afraid we have to go to Plan B,” Albert announced. “We could drive down to Christ on the Corner and have our service there.” His words hung in the suspicious silence that followed. A few cynical souls suspected that he had planned this. Albert beat a strategic retreat. “I suppose we could try some other alternative.”
Amber Ellingson, one of the goose-pimpled belly dancers, said, “Let’s go looking for a church that needs us! We can walk to several from here.” She clashed her finger cymbals together for emphasis.
Albert rubbed his eyes and tried to remain calm. When Lautenberg University was founded, it rested in the little village of Lautenberg. It was a safe haven from the big city. But the city captured the village Now it was a neighborhood of pawn shops, adult book stores, delicatessens, bars, palm readers and vacant lots. The Lautenberg U. brochure said the neighborhood offered a “culturally diverse setting.”
Amber was already headed down University Avenue. The whole group followed. The lone musician produced a recorder and began to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Albert felt like a leaf riding a tidal wave.
They were in their fourteenth chorus of “O come, let us adore him,” when they passed a vacant lot. A ten foot high chain link fence guarded the space. Out of the darkness charged a pair of bull mastiffs. The dogs hurled themselves against the fence. The costumed singers fled in terror.
Albert stood his ground as the growling sentries returned to their posts. Jackie Muller, dressed as a Guernsey cow complete with all the plumbing, said, ‘Now we know what Mary and Joseph felt like when the Roman soldiers announced the census.” People nodded, and the singing resumed.
The lights were on at River of Life Church of God in Christ. ”Let’s go in there!” Summer Judson exclaimed. Summer’s skin was so fair that she glowed in the dark. Albert was certain his little flock would be, shall we say, “conspicuous” in the African American congregation—even if they didn’t look like refugees from an Arabian garage sale.
Summer was not dissuaded. “Come on, Al! It’ll be fun!” Choir members were warmmg up in the front of the sanctuary. They were in red robes trimmed in gold. When the Lutheran parade entered, they stopped singing. The silent seconds stretched to a minute. Then Summer began in her clear soprano voice: “Angels we have heard on high.. ” The choir members joined in. Soon everyone was swinging, swaying, and clapping.
H. Randall Hanson approached the pastor, the Reverend T. Everett Hollandsworth. “Reverend, may we do our Christmas play for your service?” Hollandsworth had served the congregation for forty-three years. He thought he had seen it all. But this was anew one.
“Son,” he said, ‘that’s kind of you. But we already have our young folks ready to lead worship. I don’t think it will work. But please stay and worship with us!”
That wasn’t what the Larson Chapel crowd had in mind. Amid shouts of “Merry Christmas!” and “Thanks anyway!” they headed back down University Avenue.
Two blocks later they were in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Services had just ended, and people were coming down the big stone steps. Frigid stares were common. A few people crossed the street to get to their cars. “I didn’t realize the Drag Queen convention was in town,” someone said in the dark. One compassionate soul came over and said, “Kids, church is already over. We’re going home to have Christmas with our families. You should do the same.”
Heads sank and shoulders sagged. Andrew Norgaard—who hardly ever spoke and was dressed as a lamb—said, “Wow! I guess there was no room in that inn either.”
Albert hoped that common sense might return now. But the joumey was not yet complete. Amber Ellingson saw activity in another vacant lot. “Look, there are people around that fire barrel. Let’s do our play for them!” The tidal wave was on the move again. Albert began to compose the letters he would write to parents explaming what had happened to their precious children. He felt nauseous.
They arrived at the lot and began the play. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world would be taxed. ” The Roman soldiers began waving their swords at Joseph and Mary.
At that moment a police car pulled up, The officers strolled toward the group with their night sticks unsheathed. Albert started to calculate how much bail might be for twenty-three people. H. Randall Hanson held out his helmet and sword to one of the officers. “We’re telling the Christmas story. Would you like to help?”
The man hesitated for a moment. Then he put his cap on Randall’s head and assumed his post as Caesar’s centurion.
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. ” On cue, Sarah Potter dropped to her knees and uttered a blood-curdling scream. She then produced a naked doll from beneath her robes. Brian Bingum took the doll and swatted it firmly on the bottom. A computer chip—installed personally by Brian—produced a reasonable facsimile of a baby’s cry.
A homeless woman had edged closer during this scene. Without a word, she held out her arms. Sarah gently handed the doll to the woman. She held it close and rocked back and forth. She wept as she rocked. Sarah’s cheeks were damp, too. “I guess she’s a lot more like Mary than I am,” the college girl whispered.
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people… ” At that moment, the other police officer hit the spotlight and the siren. The fire barrel crowd scattered in fear. When nothing happened, they returned to see angels glittering in the white light and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ” The police officer’s smile was almost as bright as the spotlight.
The light revealed shepherds kneeling at the feet of the homeless woman. They had used every bit of fake beard material in the theater department. Their robes were musty from decades of storage. Their hands and faces were smudged and greasy. One enterprising youth had even blacked out four of his well-tended front teeth.
One of the University natives declared, “Hey, you guy look just like us! Can we be shepherds, too?” Four homeless men knelt with their university colleagues.
“In that region there were shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night. ” A few days later, the president of Lautenberg University learned of the Christmas Eve adventure. He decreed that such a thing should never happen again. He also ordered two dozen keys made for the Larson Chapel.
Too bad, Albert thought to himself. On that night, Jesus was once again among his people. Boundaries of class and race and education melted away. Shepherds were once again watching in the fields, and angels told the Good News. The inns were full, but the baby found loving arms. Albert hummed a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!