Mary Jane stood in front of the entire church congregation. The pews were so packed they had to open the overflow section. She was wearing a white headpiece and a light blue gown with a pillow stuffed up it to make her look pregnant. She’d been cast as Mary in the Christmas Eve pageant. The kids dressed as sheep were singing “Away in a Manger.” She was supposed to pretend to give birth, remove the pillow from her dress, and retrieve the baby doll wrapped in a dish towel from below the manger. Charlie, the boy who had been cast as Joseph, looked at her expectantly. He was the cutest boy in the seventh grade. Despite Mary Jane’s hopes that being cast as The Bible’s favorite couple, her chances with him were waning every second more she failed to act as she was supposed to. She felt the eyes of everyone in the audience looking at her. Maybe even the eyes of God.
A month earlier, when Mary Jane found out that she would play Mary in the Christmas pageant, her mother had reminded her that Mary had one of the most important roles in The Bible and that being cast as her in the Christmas pageant was not something to be taken lightly. Mary Jane tried to treat the role with reverence, working hard each night to memorize her lines and practice switching the pillow for the baby. She had really wanted to be a sheep or an angel. She knew her best friend, Korina, would have been better for the part, but she also knew that Mary wasn’t black and the director said it would be sacrilegious to make her so.
Mary Jane had befriended Korina at Jesus Camp that summer. They were attending a two-week drama camp. Korina had landed the lead atheist role in the musical the camp director had written herself; Mary Jane had been cast as the atheist’s sidekick. Korina and Mary Jane would practice their best sneering-at-Christians faces in the mirror every night after they took their showers. There was something fun about pretending to be bad, knowing that in the end they’d end up being good.
Besides learning lines, songs, and dance numbers, they were attending daily Bible study classes and worship services in the morning and evening. Meals were their only break, or the closest they came. They sang songs as a blessing for the food and were encouraged not to waste food so as to help starving kids in Africa.
There was also a Tenebrae service. Korina and Mary Jane didn’t know what this service was and when they asked a camp counselor, the boy–a high schooler in a tye-dyed camp t-shirt–described it as an extended Communion. Mary Jane and her peers were led into the main room of the lodge they stayed in. The lights had been dimmed. A card table was set up in front of the fireplace, covered with a purple cloth. A loaf of bread and two chalices rested on the table. They were instructed to sit in a semicircle on the floor. Mary Jane put on a reverent face, listening as the camp director and some of the counselors read from worn scripts, reenacting the Last Supper. The reading paused and two counselors, dish towels draped over their shoulders, made their way down the row of kids from opposite ends with buckets of warm soapy water, meant to mimic Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The counselor bent before Mary Jane and picked up her hands, gently dunking them in the lukewarm water, massaging the soap into her hands, and gingerly patting them dry with the towel.
When everyone’s hands had been washed, the reading continued. The camp director broke the loaf of white bread and raised the chalice of wine, repeating Jesus’ words. The chalices and loaves of bread were passed to either end of the semicircle. The boy beside Mary Jane held the bread and chalice for her. She broke off a chunk of bread and dipped it in the chalice. He whispered to her as she did this, “The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ poured out for you.” She placed the wine-soaked bread in her mouth, surprised that Christ could taste so acrid. She then took the chalice and bread from the boy and turned to Korina, letting her do as she did, hear the words that she had, and taste the same blood and body of Christ that she had.
When the last supper concluded, the counselors herded the campers down the gravel path cut through the woods to the sanctuary by the river. It was dark. Only the wooden cross was illuminated. The camp director and counselors read from the script, recounting the events up to Christ’s crucifixion. Mary Jane sat on a wooden bench beside Korina, both of them staring hard into the dark, trying to make out their surroundings. As a counselor pounded a piece of wood with a hammer, the sound resonating through the still night, counselors walked around with tiny boxes of nails. A counselor came to Mary Jane and took her hand, placing a small nail in her palm so the tip poked into the skin. He closed her hand tightly so the tip pressed into her palm harder. Tears welled in Mary Jane’s eyes, and when the counselor had moved onto Korina, Mary Jane wept silently.
After the service ended, they were instructed to walk back to the lodge in silence and not talk for the rest of the night because they were mourning Jesus. When hand gestures, rudimentary sign language, and furious scribbling of words into notebooks stymied communication too much, Korina and Mary Jane resigned themselves to their bunks. Before turning out the lights, Mary Jane looked at her palm where the nail had been pressed into her skin. There was a red mark.
The next morning, they awoke to pounding on their doors and counselors screaming “Jesus is alive! Jesus is alive!” Groggily, Mary Jane sat up in bed. She glanced out the tiny window in their room; the sun had barely come up. A counselor pounded on the door before opening it. She motioned for them to come outside. Mary Jane located her flip flops and joined the train of campers outside onto the dew-covered field. A large wooden cross with a piece of white fabric draped on it stood before them. They were handed hymnals and led in worship, singing acapella songs such as “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Lord I Lift Your Name on High,” and “Lord of the Dance.” To each song they did the hand gestures and dances they’d learned over the years.
When the service had ended and they were making their way back to their bunks for two more hours of sleep before breakfast, Korina shot Mary Jane a worried look. Mary Jane picked up her hand and squeezed it; they were sisters in Christ, an unbreakable bond.
On stage, Korina led the rest of the sheep in the final verse a second time. She shot a look at Mary Jane, urging her to give birth. Mary Jane looked helplessly at Charlie, his fake beard making it hard to gauge his expression. Charlie suddenly reached up her gown and yanked the pillow out before grabbing the Baby Jesus minus the dish towel and plopping him in the manger. Shocked, Mary Jane just stared at him. Charlie shrugged, helpless in the situation. Korina’s voice rang out and soon the rest of the cast joined in, singing “Joy to the World.” Mary Jane mouthed “watermelon” over and over again to look like she was singing, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to make a sound. She was too ashamed to feel like celebrating Jesus’ birth, even if it was one of her favorite hymns. When the hymn ended, they exited the stage, disappearing into the choir room to remove their costumes from over their Christmas Eve outfits. Korina met up with Mary Jane on her way back to the sanctuary, picking up her hand and giving it a squeeze.
The car ride home from the service had been quiet, as if it was actually the Thursday of Holy Week and Jesus was dead. Mary Jane knew she’d disappointed her mother, been sacrilegious like the director had wanted to avoid, and upset the audience despite all of them telling her she did a good job after the service had ended.
When they walked in the front door, her mother made a beeline to the kitchen to prepare the hot chocolate and frost the birthday cake for Jesus, as was tradition. Her older brother, John, plopped down on the couch to watch A Christmas Story, which TBS always played for twenty-four-hours straight and he somehow never got tired of watching. Usually her eldest brother, Thom, would be there too, but he was a father now, so things were different. On her way inside, Mary Jane paused at the side table by the front door where the nativity scene was set up. It looked so perfect, everything in its place. She wished she could be that Mary, having no other choice but to stand there and wait for the Baby Jesus to be placed in the manger before her.