Preparing to play Jesus requires plenty of prayer, says Tim Hunt, who returns to the role for this year's Living Nativity at Fellowship Community Church in Mount Laurel.
"Jesus calms the winds, the sea. . . . This had power from God," Hunt, 30, says of a scene that awes him both as a believer and as an actor.
"It's powerful, playing that role," adds the Pennsauken resident, who is the church's assistant youth pastor. "It's also humbling."
"Living Nativity" is something of a misnomer for the church's production. It features 13 Old and New Testament scenes, elaborate indoor and outdoor sets, special effects - a stormy Sea of Galilee, a flying flock of angels - as well as 200 costumed performers, musicians, and a herd of goats and sheep.
"It costs 25 grand to rent one," says Andy Wallin, an occasional shepherd who acknowledges that a critter he once tried to wrangle "took me for a ride around the pen."
Wallin also is pastor of administration at the nondenominational Christian church, which stages the pageant annually - and for free. Donations are not accepted.
"The Living Nativity is our gift to the community," says Pastor Mark Willey, 59, of Mount Laurel, who founded the church in 1981 and launched the Living Nativity a decade later.
"It's essential to the fiber of the church," says Wallin, 62, also of Mount Laurel, as he gives me a tour on the day before Saturday's scheduled opening.
Drizzle is falling, as is the temperature, but the 13-acre campus is abuzz with preparations. What began with a single Nativity scene 22 years ago has grown into a lavish, but dignified, production costing between $10,000 and $15,000 every year.
Audiences are organized into small groups and escorted through a succession of live-action biblical scenes and events, including Bethlehem, King Herod's throne room, the Tomb of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, and Christ's ascension.
The intention, church members say, is to tell "the real story" of Christmas and of the man for whom it is named.
"This is the Garden of Eden," Wallin says, hitting the lights in the church sanctuary to reveal the opening scene's exquisite, handcrafted set.
Costumes, props, lights, traveling booms for the angels, and the cookies served after the show all are designed or made by church staff and volunteers. About 900 people, including the cast, are involved during the seven-night run.
"Last year we probably served 2,300-dozen cookies - 5,500 a night," says Sara Gericke, 48, a Mount Laurel mother of two who regularly volunteers in the kitchen.
Besides offering cookies and hot chocolate to visitors, her crew keeps cast members and volunteers fueled with hot dogs, burgers, hoagies, and chili during the six-hour course of a typical evening.
Others direct scenes, help with parking, staff the first-aid station, tend the sheep, or act, taking turns for the juicy roles.
"In the Bethlehem scene, you'll see 40 to 50 actors," Willey says. "And many of them are families, sharing the experience."
Despite Friday's chilly rain, Beki Bicking, 55, was dressing the set of an outdoor marketplace for the "Town of Bethlehem" scene. Her daughter Jeanette, 17, is playing Eve again this year.
"Being involved as a family all these years," Bicking says, "our focus at Christmastime becomes why Jesus came, what Jesus has done for us."
In other words, the Living Nativity is a reminder that for Christians, Dec. 25 is not merely a festive date between Black Friday and the last jingle-jangling TV commercial of the "holiday season."