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More than just a quaint little story

Puppet theater and Lutheran church bring nativity alive in the city’s streets

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre, a Lake Street community playhouse, are partnering to present a re-enactment of the story of the nativity in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis December 13-16 and 20-22. Photos courtesy of In the Heart of the Beast Theatre

The “Christmas vacation” has become one of the most popular travel times for busy Minnesotans. Whether going to celebrate the holiday with family or “escaping” to a southern clime, a large percentage of the population is on the road.

Perhaps this is ironic, as the holiday that is commemorated also involved travel. But it started as a required journey in order to be counted in a tax census and ended in flight from a tyrant bent on slaughtering innocents in order to maintain power.

For many new residents of the Twin Cities area, this story is not only a commemoration of the birth of their savior, but also a shared experience of their families. In the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph (Maria and José), they experience a God who accompanies the most vulnerable of the world.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (ELCA), on 15th Avenue in Minneapolis and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre (HOBT) are once again partnering in an effort to tell this story in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. “La Natividad,” will bring the nativity story alive in this neighborhood in the tradition of Las Posadas, a Central American tradition re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for hospitality as Jesus is about to be born.

“Las Posadas refers to a tradition of seeking shelter,” explained Sandy Spieler, artistic director of HOBT. “In Mexico, the event includes people going house to house. At each door people yell ‘no,’ until someone finally agrees [to let Maria and Jose in].”

According to Spieler, La Natividad actually tells the whole Christmas story, including the annunciation, the Magnificat, the angels, the shepherds, the three kings, Herod, and the knocking on doors. “We even include the slaughter of the innocents,” she added.

Transforming journey into pilgrimage

When the angel approaches Maria, she is still in regular form. But from that point on she dons one of HOBT’s famous larger-than-lifesize masks. With Jose and a donkey, she embarks on a journey, knowing that she carries God incarnate.

“Our Maria is an immigrant from Mexico,” explained Pastor Patrick Cabelo Hansel, co-pastor with his wife Luisa of St. Paul’s. “Her son, who just turned six, was our first baby Jesus, born just a month before our first Las Posadas celebration.”

Maria and José, vulnerable as sojourners on an important trip, search for hospitality and shelter so that their child might be born. The In the Heart of the Beast Theatre’s “La Natividad” recounts the nativity, the shared story of many in the cast and audience.

“We are intentional to be a safe place, a place of refuge, where everyone knows they are welcome.”

Cabelo Hansel happily reported that a recent birth to participants at St. Paul’s ensures that there will be a new Jesus this year. “We have a baby Jesus lined up.”

Leaving from In the Heart of the Beast’s Avalon Theatre, 1500 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, the cast and audience wanders, seeking shelter, on a pilgrimage to St. Paul’s. Along the way, they ask for assistance but are rebuffed.

“We perform the story straight out of the gospels of Matthew and Luke,” Spieler told Metro Lutheran. “But we do play with the chronology just a bit” in order to end with the birth of the child rather than the slaughter of the innocents.

“The church calendar normally doesn’t include the slaughter of the innocents on the same day, but our story ties them together,” Spieler said. As King Herod tries to kill the one he views as his competition, he orders the death of all male children under three. Such brutality is part of the experience of many of the show’s 70 participants, who have escaped violence in their countries of origin.

“In the scene where Herod tries to stop the birth,” Cabelo Hansel explained, “neighbors rush out of the church to protect the travelers.”

“The miracle of birth is even more powerful in that scene of violence,” added Spieler. “This familiar story is placed in the reality of our lives,” making it more relevant and important than ever.

“La Natividad has brought the Anglos and Latinos in our congregation together around a story we share,” said Cabelo Hansel. “Together we are intentional to be a safe place, a place of refuge, where everyone knows they are welcome.”

La Natividad runs December 13-16 and December 20-22, with a 6:30 p.m. start. The show lasts two hours, including the fiesta that follows each performance. The audience should be mobile and dressed appropriately for the outdoor journey of about two blocks.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for children, students, or seniors. Groups of 10 or more can purchase tickets for $16 per person. To reserve space, visit www.HOBT.org or call 612/721-2535. Advance purchase of tickets is advised. Rush tickets are available 15 minutes prior to the show.

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