Living Nativity strives for authenticity

Production at Living Hope Church gets more elaborate each year

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Vancouver’s Living Hope Church looks like a box store on the outside. Inside, it resembles a village from 2,000 years ago, when Jesus is believed to have been born in the present-day Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

Straw crunches underfoot as two shepherds rein in a couple of goats owned by La Center resident Jeff Siebert. A carpenter (present-day teacher Tony Carlson) wears a long, cotton tunic and head covering and chisels a wooden tool resembling a spatula that would have been used to lift clothes out of barrels of dye. An open-air market offers delicacies from the region, including squishy dates, figs, dried apricots and fat olives shimmering with oil.

The village, designed by church member Jani Schaefer and put together by 20 volunteers, is the latest addition to Living Hope’s annual living Nativity production. Each year, the living Nativity becomes more elaborate and brings the audience closer to what it might have been like to live through the birth of Christ, says Living Hope’s Rev. John Bishop. The church started the event two years ago to bring the story of Christmas to life for its members and guests from the public. More than 30,000 people have seen the production since 2009, Bishop says. Nearly 1,000 people turned out for Saturday’s earliest showing. Three other shows were scheduled for later in the day, and one took place on Friday.

Bishop says there are new members who don’t know the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the books of Matthew and Luke in the Bible. Given the materialism and folklore surrounding Christmas, he suspects there are more out there who also don’t know the story.

“It’s the simple story of the gospel,” Bishop says. “The story of Christmas has been massively disordered and clouded. The point of Christmas is God coming to earth. In the midst of so many good things, people have missed the best thing.”

The story unfolds under a constellation of artificial stars in the church’s sanctuary. It begins with Mary, played by Bishop’s daughter, Prairie High School student Hannah Bishop, receiving the message that she is to bear God’s child, Jesus. When her fiancé, Joseph, played by Cody Calhoon, a Heritage High School student, hears the news that she is pregnant, he decides to leave her. An angel visits

him in the night and tells him the baby is the son of God and instructs him to go through with the marriage.

In between each scene, Bishop interrupts to give historical context and preach about how each event can be used as an example of how to conduct the Christian faith.

“God will bring interruptions into your life,” he says. “The question is what you will do with those interruptions.” In this case, Joseph chooses to disregard societal pressure to leave a woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and obeys God’s order, Bishop says.

The story continues with Joseph and Mary’s 80-mile trip from their home in Nazareth in present-day Israel to Bethlehem in the present-day West Bank to register for the Roman census.

In Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary can’t find a room in an inn. Instead, they stay in an outbuilding, along with some goats, sheep and Danny, the donkey, also owned by Siebert. That’s where Jesus is born and placed in an animal’s feeding trough, Bishop says.

Seven-year-old Vancouver resident Siena Talbot and her 8-year-old brother, Sylph Talbot, say their favorite part of the production is Jesus’ birth.

“It was so cool that it was a real baby,” Siena said.

Four-month-old Ethan Alexander played baby Jesus. His father, Michael Alexander, said he was astonished that Ethan was silent throughout the nearly hour-long production.

In the next scene, Bishop clears up a common misconception. The wise men were not Jesus’ first visitors, Bishop says. They visited Jesus when he was 6 to 9 months old. Jesus’ first visitors were shepherds, Bishop says.

“Shepherds were considered despised, rejected, considered the lowest class in Jewish society,” Bishop says. “They were not allowed to worship in the synagogue, but they were the first people God invited for Jesus’ entrance into the world. God was making a statement.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com