"The Glory of Christmas," the annual no-holds-barred holiday extravaganza at the Rev. Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, is under way.
Its 27-day, 51-performance run continues through Dec. 23. So far, pageant officials report more than 115,000 tickets sold at $14 to $25 a pop.
Watching this year's thunderous "Glory" on opening night, I couldn't help wondering where this whizbang, high-tech, mass-marketing marvel lost sight of its humble beginnings seven years ago as a modest church Christmas show.
The tone of this pageant is established at the outset with a quotation from Psalm 34:3, which in the King James version of the Bible reads: "O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together."
Somewhere along the line, the producers of this year's Gargantuan production must have been slipped in another translation: "O amplify the Lord with me." Actually, this "Glory Of Christmas" appears to have been staged more in keeping with the words of Psalm 33:3: Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.
With the aid of taped musical accompaniment blared through the cathedral's state-of-the-art sound system, the once-silent deserts of ancient Judea constantly erupt with the crescendos of modern orchestras and tumultuous choirs. Which is too bad, because for me the show's few genuinely inspirational moments were those when I wasn't being pummeled by decibels into the back of my chair.
Like the unintentional but no less touching sight of a baby goat that strayed from the flock and wandered nervously down the center aisle in search of guidance.
Or the first portion of "O Holy Night," when tenor Don Christensen, as a shepherd, sang the lilting traditional melody in a beautifully simple arrangement--before he was engulfed in stereophonic, megawatt cacophony.
But then I've always been a sucker for the little moments that trigger the Christmas spirit. I still get choked up watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on TV every year, when the ever-downtrodden Charlie searches through a forest of pink, blue and plaid aluminum trees and finally chooses a forlorn little pine that's constantly shedding its needles.
There's no moment quite so blessedly meek as that in "The Glory of Christmas," which is too busy reaching for the stupendous, spectacular effect, and whose every scene shouts "If one is good, eight are better." Executive producer-director Paul David Dunn admits his intentions in "The Glory Of Christmas" press kit: "We blend no-holds showmanship with historical truth."
Even with that spare-no-expense philosophy, there were glitches. At one point, the actor portraying the innkeeper who refuses a room to Joseph and Mary nearly lost his false beard. I felt a little sorry for him, although in context it seemed a sort of justifiable divine retribution. I half expected to hear the booming bass of the narrator (yep, it's good ole Thurl "Tony the Tiger" Ravenscroft, who also narrates Laguna Beach's "Pageant of the Masters"):
That for sending Joseph and Mary to a cold, dark manger on the night of the Savior's birth, the innkeeper was smote down with a beard that would not adhere fully.
I also mustered some sympathy for the wicked King Herod, whose name, as best I can tell from his unfortunate costuming, must mean "he who shall wear the hat resembling a giant artichoke." Herod was portrayed as an evil, deep-voiced antecedent of Darth Vader, whose duties consisted largely of waiting through an elaborate and lengthy procession for the arrival of the three wise men, then laughing maniacally after dispatching them immediately to locate the Christ child.
I suppose that in a show using live camels, horses and assorted other livestock, mock lightning and thunder, artificial fog machines and not one, not two, not three, but eight flying angels, it's unreasonable to look for subtlety.
Yet touring the grounds before the doors opened, I was struck by the many scriptural passages inlaid along the walkway outside the cathedral--a sort of spiritual Walk of Fame--and reminded how often the concept of quiet humility was stressed in biblical times.
In James, 4:10: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
In Lamentations 3:26: It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.
In Matthew 23:12: And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
But I guess that stuff can be pretty tough to stage, much less promote on TV and billboards. Perhaps the day will arrive when, according to Matthew 5:5, the meek will inherit the earth. But I bet they won't sell many tickets to it.