(This week I’m posting “It’s Wonderful – A Christmas Short Story” in five daily installments. You can read Part One by clicking HERE, Part Two HERE, and Part Three HERE. Or you can read the whole thing in one place HERE.)
I felt like I was in back in 2nd Grade, in the principal’s office sitting in a wooden chair too big for me, my legs dangling as my teacher and the principal and my mother told me I was “bad.” And I knew it was true. Then and now. I looked up at Clarence through a fog of tears that came from giving up. Even trying not to cry was worthless.
“Yes, you have hurt a great many people. You’ve made many mistakes.” He patted me on the head, an action so demeaning and yet so . . . right, coming from him. “Now you’re ready.” He announced my readiness like I had accomplished something.
“For what, Clarence?”
“To see what Christmas really means.” He put out his hand and helped me up.
“Great.” I said. “What mall are we going to? You know I hate to shop.”
Clarence kept hold of my hand. “Everything I’ve shown you so far has been in the present. Yes, a different present because you were not a part of it, but where you are going now might be a little harder for you to take.” He got that look like he was talking to someone else again. “Quite right,” he said to the unseen presence. Then back to me, he said, “Not so much where, but when you are going.”
“Is this going to be a Dickens thing? Look, I’m not Scrooge and I don’t think I could take seeing myself as a little boy. It’s bad enough seeing my adult shortcomings. So if you’re going to take me back to my childhood . . .”
“Tut, tut, tut. Don’t worry, much farther back than that. You’re going back to where Christmas really got it’s meaning.”
“Oh, the manger and all that?” As fantastic as it sounded, I brightened a bit at the prospect of seeing the baby and the shepherds and the wise men and all that. I guessed angels could do anything, and now that he had his wings – well why couldn’t we go back a couple thousand years?
“You just kneel down a little. And shut your eyes. It might be less of a shock.”
I went down on one knee, figuring that would be an appropriate posture. It seemed like there was always a shepherd or a wise man in a pose like that in the manger scenes.
“Goodbye? You’re not coming with me?”
“This you need to do alone. Now, close your eyes.”
Already his voice was fading. I shut my eyes tight and bowed my head. I was a little scared but even more excited with anticipation. After having my nose rubbed in so much of my failure, it would be wonderful to see a new life full of such promise. But I couldn’t help wondering – what was the point? What was I supposed to do when I got there?
The first thing I noticed was the smell. The stench burned my nostrils. The air was redolent of rotting meat, of the acrid stink of shed blood.
This all happened in an instant and my brain raced to process the sensory input. The grass of the lawn had given way to bare ground. Sand pushed by an arid, unforgiving wind stung my face and hands. I began to sweat under my winter clothes.
It was no longer night. I opened my eyes and the soft glow of the decorative snowman had been replaced by the blaze of the sun. I couldn’t see anything at first as my eyes struggled to adjust to the change. It was like awaking from a summer nap or emerging from a movie theater after a matinée.
I began to be aware of groaning. Of course there would be groaning because, well, birth was painful. Even His birth. But these groans sounded too deep to be coming from a woman’s throat.
I looked down away from the sun as I knelt there and images began to form before my eyes. I noticed something shining in the dust and reached out for it. I picked up the metal object and felt its shaft that ended in a sharp point and the flat head at the other end. It was a large nail. As it came into focus I saw that it was crudely fashioned; it looked as if it had been tooled by hand, not like the machined nails for sale at the hardware store.
I looked up a little as I got used to the light and saw that there was a tree just in front of me. I heard the faint sounds of weeping behind me, and further back what sounded like a restless, angry crowd. In front of me was only the groaning.
My gaze was drawn up the trunk of the tree. The sun was directly behind the top of the tree. I blinked against the light and for the first time saw Him hanging there.
“Clarence,” I whispered, “you’ve gotten me to the wrong end of it.”
I could only make out His silhouette. The shadow slowly, rhythmically rose up and down. He breathed in deeply with every movement upward. Each time He eased Himself down He let out a lung rattling, groaning exhale.
I felt moisture in the wind now. The breeze picked up speed. A storm was blowing in. From the distance I heard a roll of thunder.
Clouds began to move across the sun and I could see Him more clearly. I wanted to look away but my attention was locked upon His suffering. I was sick with the scene and with the stench of this place of death. I swallowed hard against the taste of last night’s partially digested dinner. I pushed the point of the nail against my palm to fight any urge to faint.
The sun was completely blotted out now and I could see . . . everything. The pierced wrists and feet and the blood and the sweat and His face filled my awareness. I was so alive, so awake to what was going on that I could hear the drops of blood that ran from His wrists and plopped into the dusty ground.
I dared to look at His face. He was not handsome, there was nothing in His features to draw me to Him, but still, there was something – His eyes! The most beautiful, most knowing eyes I had ever seen. As those eyes turned to meet mine I was first filled with awe.
Then I was gripped by terror. He knew me. He knew me in a way that I did not know myself. He knew beyond my ability to condemn myself how much of a failure I had been. He knew everything Clarence had shown me and more. He knew how badly I had messed up not just my life, but how I had sucked so much potential from the lives around me. I searched His eyes. All I could see was a hint of accusation.
The rise and fall was much slower now. He seemed to gather up all of His strength to push up to take in a breath. My stomach unleashed a tremendous spasm as He rose there above me. I did not throw up as I expected, but rather heaved a great sobbing sigh. I wept.
I could not take my eyes from His. As He lowered Himself I began to see that I had misread those eyes. I had seen them through the gauze of self-condemnation. It was not accusation at all; in fact what was there in His gaze was quite the opposite.
I felt myself fading from the scene. I had seen what I needed to, just as Clarence had said. I cried as I drifted away, but the tears were for joy as well as for His suffering. My last perception of that place and time was his articulation of what I had read in His eyes. He rose up, took in another deep breath, looked deep into my being, and said this in the harsh whisper that was all He could manage:
(For the (very brief) Conclusion, “A New Beginning,” Click HERE)