First Baptist Church expected 50,000 people to see this year's Christmas spectacular. The stage was ready. The wise men and the shepherds had been cast. Now, all they needed was...THE NEW JESUS

In the beginning was the script, and the script was with God, and the script was God, and the people auditioned for the roles. A hospital clerk was chosen to play Mary, a plumber to play Joseph, and Judas was the church maintenance man.

Jesus was the question. He was the chosen one, the only role for which there could be no tryouts. The people believed they would know Jesus when he came. He would be a longhaired, bearded man with clear, kind eyes -- strong yet tender, but most importantly, tall. The stage would swallow a short Christ.

Within a month, 50,000 people would start arriving to see the Christmas pageant, and still there was no Christ to be found. First Baptist Church was lost without Jesus. The actors went on alone, rehearsing as though moving in darkness, acting without meaning. "Are you Jesus?" they began asking strangers, but when the answer was, "No -- are you?" they tried not to despair. "The Lord will provide," one woman declared, and many people prayed to Jesus for a good Jesus, and lo, one Sunday in November it came to pass: Christ was born again.

He came in the person of Bill Scott, a 34-year-old stockbroker who had a habit of drinking his lunches at Hooters and a load of guilt that drove him down the aisle to repent. It wasn't until new member orientation that his potential was recognized. His hair was a bit too coiffed, but Scott had a nice beard and seemed to be a mighty nice guy. At six feet seven inches, he would be a true tower of power, perhaps the tallest Jesus of all time.

"I've been watching you," one of the pastors told him, "and I think you'd make a great Jesus Christ."

What could he say to that? The choice was approved by the powers that be, and Bill Scott began learning what it meant to give his life to Christ. The significance didn't strike him immediately, but probably it would, he said, after he got into character.

"It does seem to be a strange situation, doesn't it?" said Scott. "You join a church, go to new member orientation, and the next thing you know, you're Jesus. It's almost embarrassing."

Word has it that the original character was born about 2,000 years ago in a barn. Earlier this month, for the 27th year, Jesus was born under spotlights in a $500,000 play in First Baptist's multimillion-dollar Worship Center.

It was the largest production of the sixth-largest church in the entire Southern Baptist Convention. It required a stage half the size of a football field, two giant puppets from ceremonies of the summer Olympics, a camel and a flock of sheep, scores of speakers, perhaps a dozen spotlights, a simulated earthquake and of course, a crucifixion before a flashing, blood-red sky.

This was Merry Christmas to you from the members of the First Baptist Church choir, all 400 of them, plus a stage crew of 200. Many churches have large Christmas pageants now, but First Baptist considers itself the granddaddy of them all. The minister of music, Gerald Ray, began the show in 1970, and now he begins thinking about Christmas in March. Everyone else gets busy in August, when Ray presents the plan. "More stress on GEEsus," he told the choir this year, as they rehearsed a carol. And the members mastered dozens of carols and built elaborate props. The women sewed more than one hundred costumes. The men quit cutting their hair and grew beards. Everything was made as authentic as they knew authentic to be.

First Baptist tries to adhere strictly to the Bible, but it hasn't always been possible. One year, the Roman soldier coming for Jesus lost his skirt. Another year, Crete, the camel, lost control of its bowels, explosively, all over the stage. During the Last Supper, the disciples once drank Thunderbird wine and ate their bread with peanut butter as the stage hand who prepared the meal sat beneath the table tickling their feet.

Usually, however, the pageant is a flawless, deadly serious event that goes so well because so many go along. Roger Raby, the artistic director, also works in professional theater but prefers the people he encounters in the church. "If I told everyone to stand on their heads," he said, "they'd try 100 times before they said they couldn't."

Sometimes they stayed after midnight preparing. Between scenes, some of them conducted business on cellular phones, while others graded papers. They came when their spouses were gravely ill. As therapy for grief, they came when their spouses had recently died. The actors prayed for one another and for the play, and when they were tired, they prayed for energy. What they did could only have been done in a church. Anywhere else, a professional cast of this size would have been too expensive, and a volunteer cast too unreliable. The Christmas pageant was an act of faith.

First Baptist Church is the vision of John Bisagno, the pastor known to his flock as Brother John. At 62, he is round and jolly, and reclining in his study on his overstuffed couch, he looked very much like a beardless Santa Claus. Once, he interrupted the interview to call a fellow minister with career advice. ("I'd go with Memphis," he said. "You have no obligations to Corpus Christi.") Twice, aromas of lunch arrived from the kitchen below, and Brother John smiled and said, "Sure smells good." Then he got back to the business of Jesus.

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