Flickering fires and the kindness of strangers kept warmth and hope strong in the wilderness along the winding, treacherous road from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a cold winter's night.
Roman soldiers and Judean collaborators — with at least one centurion on horseback — demanded identification papers and exhorbitant fees for passage. Thieves leapt out of the dark undergrowth to demand bread before running off into the night again.
However, amid the danger and oppression on one family's journey to pay the emperor's provincial taxes, other strangers — a scribe, shepherds, a choir of angels and three sage astrologers — foretold of the coming of a messiah that would liberate the people from their earthly overlords, a messiah by the name of Jesus.
The birth of Christ is celebrated every year by Christians around the world, and since 1993, Capital City Christian Church in Jefferson City has brought scripture to life with its live-action "Journey to Bethlehem," the second and last night of which was Saturday.
The lines of description above are a testament to some of the detail actors and craftspeople put into making a two millennia-old Biblical journey feel as present and tangible as the sight of misty breaths and the smell of woodsmoke. In addition to the costumes and other live animals like sheep and camelidae, small tent villages representing the cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem featured food, drinks and a working leather-engraving and branding shop.
"It's just so amazing to see it in three dimensions," Dave Barrett, of Jefferson City, said of the overall experience
Barrett was at the end of the journey — after hot chocolate and cookies in a gymnasium around a Christmas tree — waiting by a fire to help people who'd finished the Journey to Bethlehem onto shuttle buses to take them back to their vehicles.
"I'm one of the cast of thousands," Barrett said. He's been going to church at Capital City Christian for about seven or eight years, and this weekend was the third time he'd done the live-action trail.
It was Samantha Metscher's first time. Metscher, of Macks Creek, is assistant youth leader of First Baptist Church of Macks Creek's youth group.
"It's a really cool ministry," she said of the event, a way to bring the Gospel to people of all ages who may not have heard it before, yet in a way so they don't feel pressured.
She was amazed a church like Capital City Christian would open its doors the way they do and by the amount of time put into the Journey.
"It brings a smile to my face to be able to do that for them," Charlie Turmer, of Bunker, said of driving in a church bus with his wife, granddaughter and a group of four special needs adults who his wife teaches the about 21/2 hours to Journey to Bethlehem for their first time — his second after he lived in Jefferson City four years ago.
Barrett said 1,000 visitors a night is not unusual for the event, "This is typical." He added sometimes the event goes until 1 a.m., just to allow everyone already in line a chance to do the 30- to 45-minute Journey. The wait at one point Saturday night was about an hour or two, though most of that was inside the warm church.
At the end of the waiting and the cautious steps through a candle-lit forest path was the purpose of the journey. Mary, with husband Joseph standing at her side, held a swaddled, newborn Jesus — for Christians, God in the flesh, a recently delivered baby who would grow to offer sacrificial deliverance from death, the coldest and darkest of nights.