The Nativity Scene
written by: Lauren Roman
That Christmas, I wasn’t called to church gatherings or worship. Instead, I was wandering my town with three layers of jackets and festive sweaters. My boots were covered in powdered snow as I took a brisk walk in the crisp air. My body felt heavy with all the layering and, between that, and misgivings about my faith, I felt ominously similar to Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge. Children’s laughter clamored over the sidewalks and I watched as their joyous faces fell flat when they saw me. Sometimes, I could even hear their whispers as they journeyed to the other side of the street.
“What’s wrong with him? Doesn’t he know it’s Christmas? Shouldn’t he be smiling?”
I knew I should be. I knew they were right. Yet, still the doubts festered inside. They taunted me and my heavy heart. To them, I was an older man, hardened by the obstacles of life. On one hand, they were correct, but, on the other, they couldn’t be further from the truth. I was a boy, like them, inside. A boy without parents to enjoy or siblings to open presents with that Christmas night.
And, though I did not arrive in this world with adoption papers, I very much felt like an orphan. A couple of five-year-olds could not understand that or imagine that the man they had judged so quickly had his own scars to carry.
That’s where the church thing came in. I would settle in my pew every Sunday, saying the right stuff, singing along to the right melodies, and bowing my head when asked. But, reminiscent to the silence of this evening, I kneeled on the altar unable to speak a word to the God they said cared for me.
Instead, after service, my friends would lend their ears to my suffering. Their houses would become my altar and similar to the stillness of God, their doors would too, become shut, and eventually, my grief would become a source of shame. Like a caged bird, I elected to remain behind bars, covered from the cold of human company like I was bundled against the breeze of this December morning. The key to freedom would have to be buried somewhere else, I thought. Like a hidden treasure, it beckoned me toward its discovery, yet its location had eluded me. With no map to carry, I had been unable to find peace.
Eventually, the winds died down and I sat on a park bench underneath a tall, fir tree. Many years ago, I would wobble next to my father as we searched for the most glorious Christmas tree to surprise my mother with. His axe fell loosely over his shoulder and to me, that tool was the perfect instrument to use to make our festivities brighter. But, a couple of mornings after, when the air was stained with the musky smell of alcohol, I would forget the refreshing company of holiday firs. The bench was cold when I sat on it and it stung the clawed marks on my back. After all these years, my body was cursed to remember that moment.
Already, the church bells began to ring in the distance. I fumbled with my feet, trying to assume the perfect posture to relax, but I couldn’t. It was too painful. This familiar ache was what drove me to the bells the first time. Now, I wanted to hide from them and the grim, smiling faces of the people who would greet me at the door. My body became still with chills. Dread took hold of my heart and seized it with its cold talons. I could feel myself suffocating, but I became audience to the pain and ignored my own torture.
The angelic choir began. Voices rose in the distance. All around me, snow began to drizzle over the town with the promise of new hope. The wind carried with it the melodies of a thousand voices. Even though it was dark, I witnessed families inside their homes, huddled next to the fireplace, unwrapping their presents.
A somber silence gathered together to test the clamor inside my own head. Bubbling inside was a jealousy I didn’t understand. Those children didn’t deserve to experience the joy of the season. Not while I sat, alone and confused about the reason for the holiday, when so many like me were wandering the streets as I was, dismal about store discounts, glittering Santa porch lights, and hanging tinsel.
Unable to handle the momentous engagement of so many festive neighbors, I looked up, toward the stars. Oddly enough, there was only one that night. Immediately, I thought back to the Christmas story and couldn’t help but scoff at the irony of it all. Before I hung my head, however, my eyes could not reject the brilliance of its glow. Even from this distance, it appeared to perform several tumbles and flickered high over my head. While it danced in the moonlight, a desire stirred in me to search for more of them. Star-gazing was one of my favorite hobbies growing up, and, was one of the many small pleasures I had stifled for so long.
Plus, something about this celestial body lulled me into a trance. Already, I recalled the way to my secret hideout. The hill that I visited often was the highest of all hills and lay perfectly tucked among a family of aromatic pine trees. It was my personal tower to the heavens. And the perfect place for my own solitude, where I could dream and pray.
As I wandered off the sidewalk toward the gathering of trees, I re-discovered the familiar opening where two tall boulders guarded the entrance. In my imagination, they were twin giants, protecting my escape and I recognized their reproach toward my enemies when they attempted to follow me in.
As I pushed wild leaves aside and heard branches snap underneath my steps, the sky, once full of purple hues, became dark and ominous. This made me happy, because now, all the stars would be out. But when I reached a fork in my path, my heart sank. Long ago, I once knew which way to turn, but, distracted by my grief and anticipation of returning to my hill, I had forgotten the way toward it. Left became right, right became left and, in the blanket of one of the week’s darkest nights, I found myself lost in the belly of the forest.
“I guess I’ll turn right,” I thought. But immediately, I turned left as a wave of doubts chided me for guessing. Left must be the right answer, because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so quick to choose right. Comforted by this thought, I felt myself relax and admired the snow that burdened so many of the wild branches. Somehow, winter’s frozen decorations made up for the absence of colorful flowers and chirping songbirds. Icicles hung over me and I could witness my reflection on their transparent surfaces.
But, after fifteen minutes, I realized my decision had been the wrong one. There was no hill. And when I turned to retrace my footsteps, the fallen snow had covered my tracks. Suddenly, the winter wonderland I found myself in, became a tight maze of snowflakes. The moonlight was too dim to trust as a guide for my return home and when I looked up again, there were no stars except the one which led me here. Frustrated, I turned in circles, desperate for a familiar branch or indent on the ground. But, everything remained the same. I shut my eyes and sat on the snow.
Truthfully, I was too exhausted to even try. If I joined Jack Frost in his winter dance tonight, I would not be disappointed. There were many nights I wished I could fall into a deep sleep and perhaps tonight, the fates would grant me my heart’s deepest desire. The wind howled and my toes curled. As my body shivered, I realized I was still very much alive.
Enough of your pity party, you silly thing. Time to go back. I obeyed my cruel inner voice, but what it failed to tell me was that across from my hunched form was a faint orange glow that came from a single candle. The shadows it cast danced in front of me and I was shocked to discover that the fire wavered and turned, but never went out. It was almost as if the flame itself was invincible against the brutal push and pull of the winter wind.
I crawled closer to it and was surprised to find the strength of its warmth was similar to my fireplace back home. Both my cheeks and neck burned hot from its flame. But more astounding than the flame was the Nativity Scene that stood behind it. Someone must have put it there! I thought in wonder. The plastic Wise Men assumed their natural posture of reverence in between a wooden altar that appeared to be handcrafted. It was such a small, pitiful thing next to the glorious expanse of the forest. Yet, nothing else seemed to grab my attention. As I walked past the animals and hovered over the small manger in the middle, the spell it cast over me broke, and I gritted my teeth.
For it wasn’t the baby in the swaddling clothes that I saw, but a giant. A powerful man who sat on a throne with wild eyes and flaming hair. Images of my father crossed my thoughts and darkened my soul. In between the flashes of his belt and harsh threats, God’s cruel voice boomed over the heavens and ordered my father to hit me. His minions bowed their heads. “It will be done” and with that, I hung my head and my heart broke. What was left of my self-control cracked underneath the traumatic weight of Christmas’ past and present.
My tears became an offering that turned the frozen snow into water. A small puddle formed underneath the still statue of baby Jesus in His manger. The Wise Men gathered to witness my shattered composure, and I felt naked in front of the plastic lambs, cows, and shepherds. All at once, my world blurred from so many tears. Hours seemed to have passed as my body heaved over the dampened hay. Eventually, my throat closed up and I could no longer cry. When I braced myself against a fresh gathering of cold wind, my fingers clinged to a foreign piece of soft cloth.
I gasped when I pulled a heavy blanket of white garment from my shoulders and held it in front of me. It was made of soft furs and exuded its own heat. Warmer than the candle, I thought. As I admired its craftsmanship, my eyes, heavy from crying, sluggishly looked over the wooden altar once more. Now, it appeared as if several candles were lit and Jesus’ face beamed with its own angelic glow. The garments on the shepherds flapped against the snowfall and I wandered toward a single beam next to the Wise Man holding his gift of gold. Etched into the side were the letters to my name, as if someone had used a knife to carve it.
In the dismal silence of the forest, I could feel a wave of emotion sweep over me. I cried a new batch of tears, yet these did not sting my eyes as much as they did before.
At that moment, I realized I was led by starlight to this place, and somehow, the company of this dry piece of wood was more special than a church service and safer than an altar. In this spot, my heart broke more, I cried more, and when I was finished, I had the blanket to nurse my aching body, while I beheld the little Nativity Scene the Carpenter had specially carved for me.
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- The Nativity Scene - December 14, 2022