Thought I would share a quick, fun story from my past Christmas exploits.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was a Jedi knight, otherwise known as a Canon in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. I was the youngest Canon by a long shot, most of my colleagues being just a bit older than God.
It was the tradition at the Cathedral to broadcast the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass on WSB-TV each year LIVE! LIVE means “live”, meaning anything that goes wrong remains wrong, no do-overs, no second takes. To say people got a little nervous was an understatement. I absolutely loved it.
We had this long Atlanta tradition partly because the station manager at WSB was a Cathedral communicant, Don Elliot Heald. Growing up in Atlanta, with WSB being the bastion of electronic journalism, Don Elliot Heald had saint-like status with me and my grandparents and parents. He would do editorials on the need for civil rights, a vision for a progressive South, and general good stuff that pushed the envelope for folks South of God.
When I first met Don Elliot Heald, it was when he came to hear me at the formidable Cathedral Forum, where I was presenting a book review on a book about Catholic mystic and monk, Thomas Merton. it was like me meeting a folk hero. Don was so gracious in his lavishing praise on my work that morning. Through the years, he completely lived up to his image, being one of the finest human beings I have known, on top of having a wicked sense of humor that I enjoyed and shared. Don had the ability to not take himself too seriously, and I am sure that helped in running his landmark television station. Some of my favorite memories of Don revolve around preparing for and producing the Christmas Eve telecast.
Every Christmas Eve, people across Atlanta would turn on WSB to catch the Midnight Mass from the Cathedral. I had done so at my Southern Baptist home, and finally went to see it live with my girlfriend in high school. Actually, it became nationally broadcast for many years, something Atlanta was proud of, joining the Pope in Rome and the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C..
My first time of participating in the live broadcast, I was asked to fulfill a special role. I was to process into the Cathedral, dressed in my heavy and stunning cloth-of-gold vestments, shed the duds, a la Elvis “Thank you very much!”, go out the back door, run down the side hill on Andrews Dr. off Peachtree, climb into Ted Turner’s production truck, normally used for Braves games, and assist the director of the television production. Got that? Piece of cake for the kid.
You see, the director was from the tribe of Southern Baptists, South of God, and had no clue what a Mass was or looked like. A Mass for this guy was something a surgeon removed. While he would be making sure the television signal was just right, it was my job to actually direct the shot by telling him what the important action was and what to anticipate. There was one stationary camera in the balcony, one on the side, behind a column, and two portable cameras, being carried by cameramen.
The director was the normal type, looking for the interesting shot to go out over the metropolitan Atlanta. He seemed to have a fancy for one particular woman in the choir, the stained glass of the nativity, and for the creche, a manger scene with a peculiarly white Baby Jesus. Jesus had golden hair and blue eyes, not Palestinian in the least. Every chance the director had in the beginning of the service, he had the cameramen put the camera of the girl, the glass, or blond Baby Jesus.
Watching the camera shots with more than a passing care for what was going out to Atlanta, I became a bit amused, actually kidding the director for his attraction to the one chorister, and that damn blond Jesus. There’s another story about me kidnapping the blond Baby Jesus, but that will have to wait for another day. Back to the service.
It has started as usual. Monica Kaufman, in her signature winsome smile, inviting the WSB TV viewers of the 11 o’clock news to join the Christmas Eve worship service at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. As Episcopal parades on such high feast days tend to be longish, the live broadcast caught us in the middle of the opening hymn.
The opening processional was going well, with the brass instruments from the Atlanta Symphony playing their hearts out, the tympani being struck with majestic rhythm, the Robert Shaw singers intoning the sacred sounds, dressed in Elizabethan garb. It was a spectacle, a spiritual extravaganza, proper for the heralded birth of the long-awaited Messiah.
I could see on the monitor from the back stationary camera that the Bishop was coming to take his place at the center of the high altar where he would deliver his open acclamation to the crowd assembled and to the television audience.
And yet, the on-air shot was going back and forth between the choir, the trumpets, and the blond Baby Jesus. I knew what had to be done.
I said in a calm tone, trying to maintain my Zen cool, to the director, “Put the camera on the Bishop.”
The director said to the cameramen, “Put the camera on the Bishop.”
One of the cameramen on his headset replied, “Which one is the Bishop?”
Hearing his question, I pointed to the monitor from the stationary camera at the Bishop, “That’s the Bishop!”
The director fired off his precise direction to the cameraman, “Put the camera on the fat guy with the pointed hat”, describing the Bishop of Atlanta, The Rt. Rev. Judson Child, pretty damn well. And the cameraman did as told, just in time, as they say.
The shot came off without a glitch. Bishop Child offered the traditional Christmas acclamation, and the Grinch was foiled again. The Baby Jesus arrived just in time.
The clergy always gathered after the live television broadcast, out behind the Cathedral for a moment of Christmas cheer, usually involving some brown whiskey, maybe champagne, to celebrate our successful work. It was to become a tradition that was the favorite part of Christmas to me, the collective celebration of Christmas, stoked by the inimitable thrill of being on the air “live”, the appreciation of the comaraderie of a job well done, and the exquisite joy of the season. Nothing like it, before or since.
On that night, as I told Bishop Child of what had happened in the production truck, no one laughed harder than him. “The fat guy with the pointed hat!” he kept repeating. Judson knew and recognized the joy of the mystery of Incarnation as well as anyone I have known. I think of him on Christmas Eve, each year, and smile, and once again taste the joy of the Good News birthed in that night.
I wish you a grand time of joy as we pause in this celestial moment of darkness to dare offer a laugh and cut an eye for the Light that gives hope, and joy. Blessings.