The Manger Is Empty - Part 3 of 3 --by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
We have several customs--in church and in my family--on Christmas Eve. As to the church, we celebrate the evening always with a children's pageant of the birth of Jesus. There never was the pageant in which my children didn't participate. As for my family, we always open our Christmas presents after the pageant, when the glow is still upon us, when Thanne and I can watch the children and enjoy their joy. Nothing is dearer to me than the purity of their gladness then, the undiscordant music of their laughter then.
And nothing could grieve me more than that one of my children should be sad and lose the blessings of these customs.
Therefore, I worried terribly for Mary all Thursday through. As it happened, she was to be the Mary of the pageant, the Virgin, the mother of the infant Jesus. At 3 in the afternoon I left church and went home to talk with her.
I found her alone in her bedroom, lying on the bed and gazing out the window, her chin on her wrists. snow clouds caused a darkness within, but shed left the lights off where she was.
I stood beside the bed and touched her. The pragmatic pastor was concerned whether this child could accomplish so public a role in so private a mood.
The father simply wished he knew what his daughter was thinking.,
"Mary," I said, "do you want us to get another Mary?"
She kept watching the snow come down. Slowly she shook her head. "No," she said. "I'm Mary."
I didn't think she'd understood me--and if she didn't, my question must have sounded monstrous to her ears. "For the pageant, I mean," I said, "tonight."
But she repeated without the slightest variation, "I'm Mary."
Mary, Mary, so much Mary--but I wish you weren't sad. I wish I had a word for you. Forgive me. It isn't a kind world after all.
"You are Mary," I said. "I'll be with you tonight. It'll be all right."
We drove to church. The snow lay a loose inch on the ground. it swirled in snow-devils at the backs of the cars ahead of us. It held the gray light of the city near the earth, though this was now the night, and heaven was oblique in darkness. Surely, the snow covered Odessa's grave as well, a silent, seamless sheet.
These, I suppose, were Mary's thoughts, that the snow was cold on a new-dug grave. But Mary's thoughts confused with mine.
The rooms of the church were filled with light and noise, transfigured utterly from the low, funereal whispers of the morning. Black folk laughed. Parents stood in knots of conversation. Children darted, making ready for their glad performance, each in a different stage of dress, some in blue jeans, some in the robes of the shepherds two millennia and 20 lands away. Children were breathless and punchy. But Mary and I moved like spirits through this company, unnoticed and unnoticing. I was filled with her sorrow, while she seemed simply empty.
In time the wildness subsided. The actors huddled in their proper places. I sat with the congregation, two-thirds back on the right-hand side. The lights in the sanctuary dimmed to darkness. The chancel glowed a yellow illumination. The pageant began, and soon my daughter stood with pinched lips, central to it all.
"My soul," said Mary, both Marys before a little Elizabeth--but she spoke so softly that few could hear, and my own soul suffered for her--"My soul," she murmured, "magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."
And so: The child was surviving. But she was not rejoicing.
Some angels came and giggled and sang and left.
A decree went out.
Another song was sung.
And then three figures moved into the floodlit chancel: Joseph and Mary, and one other child, a sort of innkeeper-stage-manager who carried the manger, a wooden trough filled with straw and a floppy doll in diapers.
The pageant proceeded, but I lost the greater part of it in watching my daughter.
For Mary stuck out her bottom lip and began to frown on the manger in front of her--to frown fiercely, not at all like the devout and beaming parent she was supposed to portray. At the manger she was staring, which stood precisely where Odessa's casket had sat that morning. She frowned so hard, blacking her eyes in such deep shadow, that I thought she would break into tears again, and my mind raced over things to do when she couldn't control herself any longer.
But Mary did not cry.
Instead, while shepherds watched over their flocks by night, my Mary played a part that no one had written into the script. Slowly she slipped her hand into the manger and touched the doll in diapers. She lifted its arm on the tip of her pointed finger, then let it drop.
What are you thinking, Mary?
All at once, as though she'd made a sudden decision, she yanked the doll out by its toes, and stood up, and clumped down the chancel steps, the doll like a dishrag at her side. People made mild, maternal sounds in their throats. The rhythm of a certain angel faltered. Mary, where are you going? What are you doing? I folded my hands at my chin and yearned to hold her, hide her, protect her from anything, from folly and from sorrow. But she carried the doll to the darkened sacristy on the right and disappeared through its door. Mary? Mary?
In a moment the child emerged carrying nothing at all. Briskly she returned to the manger, up three steps as light as air, and down she knelt, and she gazed upon the empty straw with her palms together like the first Mary after all, full of adoration. And her face-- Mary, my Mary, your face was radiant then! O Mary, how I love you!
Not suddenly, but with a rumpling, stumbling charge, there was in the chancel a multitude of the proudest heavenly host, praising God and shouting, "Glory to God in the highest!" but Mary knelt unmoved among them, and her seven-year face was smiling, and there was the flash of tears upon her cheeks, but they were not unhappy, and the manger, open, empty, seemed the receiver of them.
"Silent night, holy night. . ." All of the children were singing. "All is calm, all is bright. . . " The deeper truck-rumble of older voices joined them. "Round yon virgin mother and child. . . " The whole congregation was singing. Candlelight was passing hand to hand. A living glow spread everywhere throughout the church. And then the shock of recognition, and the soft flight followed: Dee Dee Lawrence allowed her descant voice its high, celestial freedom, and she flew. "Holy infant, so tender and mild. . ." Mary, what do you see? What do you know that your father could not tell you? Mary, mother of the infant Jesus, teach me, too.
"Sleep in heavenly peace. . . " Having touched the crystal heaven, Dee Dee descended. The congregation sighed. Everybody sang: "Sleep in heavenly peace."
Mary sat immediately beside me in the car as we drove home. A sifting snow made cones below the streetlights. It blew lightly across the windshield and closed us in a cotton privacy. I had been driving in silence.
Mary said, "Dad?"
I said, "What?"
She said, "Dad, Jesus wasn't in the manger. That wasn't Jesus. That was a doll." Ah, Mary, so you have the eyes of a realist now? and there is no pretending anymore? It was a doll indeed, So death reveals realities. . .
She said, "Jesus, He doesn't have to be in the manger, does He? He goes back and forth, doesn't He? I mean, He came from heaven, and He was borned right here, but then He went back to heaven again, and because He came and went He's coming and going all the time--right?"
"Right," I whispered. Teach me, child. It is so good to hear you talk again.
"The manger is empty," Mary said. And then she said more gravely, "Dad, Miz Williams' box is empty, too. I figured it out. We don't have to worry about the snow." She stared out the windshield a moment, then whispered the next thing as softly as if she were peeping at presents: "It's only a doll in her box. It's like a big doll, Dad, and we put it away today. I figured it out. If Jesus can cross, if Jesus can go across, then Miz Williams, she crossed the same way, too, with Jesus. . ."
Jesus, He don' never let one of us go. Never.
"Dad?" said Mary, who could ponder so much in her heart. "Why are you crying?"
Babies, babies, we be in the hand of Jesus, old ones, young ones, and us and you together. Jesus, he hold us in His hand, and ain' no one goin' to snatch us out. Jesus, he don' never let one of us go. never. Not ever.
"Because I have nothing else to say," I said to her. "I haven't had the words for some time now."
"Don't cry. I can talk for both of us."
It always was; it always will be; it was in the fullness of time when the Christ child first was born; it was in 1981 when my daughter taught me the times and the crossing of times on Christmas Eve; it is in every celebration of Christ's own crossing; and it shall be forever--that this is the power of a wise love wisely expressed: to transfigure the heart, suddenly, forever.
-Walter Wangerin, Jr.