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Away in a Manger

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I found Jesus last weekend. He was in Cordova.

In an event billed as a "search for baby Jesus along wooded trails with angels, shepherds, and wise men," members of Heartsong Church led attendees through the church's woods for their annual "Road to Bethlehem" tour last week.

Upon arriving at the church, a friend and I get tickets for the free tour. Each group includes about 10 people, made up mostly of young couples with small children. Outside, cast members perform the nativity story over and over from 6:30 to 9 p.m. As we set out, our robed tour guide leads us past a Roman soldier in a metal headdress.

Once outside, we journey along a winding, straw path through the woods surrounding the church. Our first stop is the Annunciation. A light shines on a woman who appears to be floating. Her white robes are accented with gold, and we assume she's the angel Gabriel. Mary kneels before her as the angel spouts a prophecy about the coming virgin birth of Christ.

After the angel gives Joseph a similar message, the now-pregnant Mary and her bewildered husband step ahead of the tour guide and lead us to the inn. When we arrive at the scene, the couple steps off the path and onto a small set. The innkeeper then turns the expectant couple away but gives them the option of sleeping in the stable.

At this point, Mary and Joseph head off toward the stable, and our tour moves on to a couple of other stops. We hear the "peace on earth, goodwill to men" speech from a few angels. I notice an empty, elevated chair next to one angel. That explains how they appear to hover.

We move on to the Wise Men. They grab a couple of fancy boxes filled with frankincense and myrrh and join our tour as we head toward the grand finale: the nativity scene.

On arrival, the first thing we notice is the camel on Jesus' far right. He's chewing straw, and my friend leans over and whispers, "Oh my God, is that a real camel?"

No way, I say. It's got to be animatronic. But when the camel starts to nuzzle its caretaker, I quickly realize I'm wrong. We're captivated. Heartsong's nativity uses a real, live camel we later learn is named PeeWee.

As a non-Christian, I was impressed with Heartsong's elaborate nativity. And a romp through the woods sure beats sitting in a pew, watching some singing Christmas tree.

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