Five years ago, Philip Kopper wrote and directed the annual Christmas pageant for Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown "as a sort of gift to a small community of friends," he said.
Today, Kopper, a free-lance writer, choir member and former vestryman at Grace, is watching with relish and some wonderment a growing stack of reviews from around the nation praising his 144-page Christmas art book, "A Christmas Testament." It evolved from the Grace Christmas service five years ago.
Tomorrow at 5 p.m., he will again stage the pageant at Grace. And as he did the first time, Kopper will start at the beginning with the Genesis account of Creation.
"To use only New Testament texts" to recount the Nativity "robs the story of its extraordinarily powerful context," he explained in the foreword to his book. "Prophecies and angelic messengers harken all the way back to God's covenant with Abraham, itself a sequel to Adam and Eve's fall. Thus the search for the story's beginning leads back to Eden and before."
Kopper was so pleased with the reception Grace's parishioners accorded his pageant -- he calls it a "dramatic reading" -- five years ago that he decided to turn the manuscript into an art book, published by the new firm of Stewart, Tabori & Chang, of New York.
The volume is studded with reproductions of world-famous paintings, interpretations by the masters of the narratives' themes.
"About a third of the art came from the National Gallery," Kopper said. The rest was gathered from museums as scattered as the Vatican, the Prado in Madrid and the Hermitage in Leningrad.
Kopper and his wife, Mary, who selected the art, particularly wanted to use Rembrandt's "Sacrifice of Isaac," which is in the Hermitage. "Everyone told us we would never get permission" from the Soviet government for use of a reproduction of the painting. But they sent off the request anyway.
"A couple of months later there came this envelope . . . with one thin sheet of fiberboard and the transparency" of the Rembrandt, Kopper recalled. "With it was a note in broken English saying, 'Please use this picture. The fee will be a copy of the book.' " In contrast, he said, some of the German museums charged $300, $400, $500," for permission to reproduce works in their collections.
The charm of "A Christmas Testament" is enhanced by the text in calligraphy instead of conventional print. It is the work of calligrapher Polly Johnson, a former Roman Catholic nun. The hand-drawn letters provide an added emphasis; in the passage from the Gospel of St. Luke about the shepherds finding "Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger," tiny flowers of joy sprout from the letters. But the account of Herod's slaughter of the innocents ends with a tiny dagger dripping blood.
Kopper and a coterie of his fellow parishioners at Grace church have been busy rehearsing for tomorrow's revival of the pageant. A Foreign Service officer and an interpreter for the deaf will be narrators; a school bus driver, an exhibits technician at the Smithsonian and an advertising man will be prophets, "and I will be the angel, naturally," Kopper said, tongue in cheek.
In Kopper's nativity pageant, Adam later becomes Joseph--played by a civil servant from the Department of Energy; the serpent from the Garden of Eden becomes Herod--played by a tax attorney; and Eve becomes Mary.
That created a slight casting problem this year. The woman who played Eve/Mary five years ago has since become Kopper's wife. She is currently expecting their first child. "She wanted to play Mary again," said Kopper. "A pregnant Mary I could go along with; it would have been a nice touch. But there's no way I could rationalize a pregnant Eve."