Westside Church’s Christmas pageant, "The Gathering," begins typically enough with a core message about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the true meaning of Christmas.
But in light of the state of the world and the chaos that exists, audiences will hear an underlying message, says Director Suzie Norton.
“The truth is, our world is a mess,” says Norton. “People are afraid. They don’t know what to believe. They don’t know who to trust. Nothing seems to make sense. That’s why God gave us His Son at Christmas – to make perfect sense of the world today. 'The Gathering' is about hope and joy."
The 33-year pageant tradition started as "The Festival of Light" under founding pastor Dr. Calvin Miller. While the format remains relatively the same, the story changes from year to year, often in context with what’s happening in the world.
“While the story line may be a little different, we always show the audience the most important element of Christmas, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,” says Norton.
She has written and directed the pageant for many years in collaboration with her husband, Dan, who is the church's media pastor, and Executive Pastor Byron Cutrer.
“He has been involved in Christian music for decades and has written and arranged some of the music in the program,” Dan Norton says of Cutrer. “With his sense of humor and vast experience, it’s been fun to have him on the creative team.”
Just as it was with the original Nativity, the pageant features live animals, including camels, a donkey, sheep and goats that often interact with the audience.
But today, the presentation is a multimedia experience with angels flying across the sky, a live orchestra, dancers, videos and special effects (like falling snow).
Suzie Norton describes the pageant as a yearlong labor of love, starting with script writing and music selection in the spring. Auditions are held in August, then rehearsals begin.
It's gratifying, she says, to watch 300 to 400 people with a variety of skills and backgrounds come together to make it all happen. With the exception of some tech and music support, everyone is a volunteer.
“The pageant is a Christmas tradition for many families,” she says. “Over the years, awareness of the pageant has grown. A few years ago, we began selling reserved seats because our free tickets were being duplicated and offered for sale on Craigslist.
“This year, when tickets became available online, over 200 people in five states were waiting to purchase them.”
Westside Church also has Christmas Eve candlelight services on each of its campuses (Dodge Road, Gretna and Fremont) and invites the public to attend and observe. Services at the West Dodge Road location are at 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. and are led by Senior Pastor Dr. Curt Dodd.
Each service ends with the singing of "Silent Night" and the lighting of candles throughout the congregation from the flame of a single candle Pastor Dodd acquired in Bethlehem.
“We hope the message (of the pageant) will be clear that even though life can be difficult, there is reason for hope,” Suzie Norton says.
IF YOU GO
What: 2019 Westside Church Christmas Pageant
When: Dec. 7, 8, 14, 15, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and Dec. 12 and 13, 7 p.m.
Location: Worship center, 15050 West Dodge Road
Admission: $5, $10 and $15
Tickets: 866-437-5266, www.westsidechristmas.org