The Manger Is Empty – Part 1 of 3

This second Christmas story is for everyone, inasmuch as the Christmas Story itself is. The first story I shared unfolded a wondrous, physical miracle that is perfectly explainable. . . yet remarkably outside the spread of galactic chances.

This story, is a father’s glimpse into a soul so big in one so young. It is a story without guile, unashamed at its own goodness and wisdom. Let it take you where it will:

The Manger Is Empty – by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Part I

We have a custom in our congregation: Always we gather on the Sunday evening before Christmas, bundled and hatted and happy, and we go out into the sharp December darkness to sing carols. Down the streets of the city we go, the children bounding forward, adults all striding behind, chattering, making congenial noises, puffing ghosts of breath beneath the streetlights, laughing and glad for the company. Does anyone think it will snow? It’s cold enough to snow, and the air is still, and the stars are already a snow-dust in heaven.

We crowd on the porches of the old folks. The children feel a squealing excitement because they think we’re about to astonish Mrs. Moody in her parlor by our sudden appearing—carols from the out-of-doors, you know. She’ll be so surprised! So they giggle and roar a marvelous Hark! with their faces pressed against her window: Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king. . .

Mrs. Moody turns on her porch light, then opens her curtains, and there she is, shaking her head and smiling, and the children fairly burst with glee. They can hardly stand it, to be so good. She turns on her porch light, and here we are, 15, maybe 20 of us, spilling down her steps into the little yard, lifting our faces, lifting our voices—doing silly things, like lifting our key rings to the refrain of “Jingle Bells” and making a perfect, rhythmic jangle.Everybody’s willing to be a kid. Nobody minds the cold tonight. The white faces among us are pinched with pink, the black ones (we are mostly black ones) frost, as though the cold were a white dust on our cheeks.

And down the street we go again, and so we sing for Mrs. Lander and Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Buckman and Mrs. DeWitt.

And though we can be silly, and though this is just an ordinary custom, yet we are no ordinary choir. Many of us sing for the Sounds of Grace, a choir of legitimate repute. And some of us have been blessed by God with voices the angels would weep to own.

Mary, whose heart could ponder so much.

And so it was that on Sunday evening, the 20th of December, 1981, we kept our custom and went out caroling. My daughter Mary was seven years old then. Dee Dee Lawrence, that blinking, innocent child whose beauty was not remarkable until she sang, was eight. Timmy Moore, with his husky and generous tenor voice, was with us, and the Hildreth children. Most of the children’s choir, in fact, had come along. The night was not much different from those that went before – except for this, the when we had finished our round of houses we went to St. Mary’s Hospital to sing for several members who were patients at Christmas time. We divided into three groups. As pastor, I myself led a handful of children to the room of Odessa Williams because her condition was worse than the others.

It was Odessa Williams who made the night different.

The children had never laid eyes on her before. When they crept into the ward and saw her cadaverous body, they were speechless. Scared, I think. Mary’s blue eyes grew very large, and I felt pity for her.

Well, I knew what to expect, but Mary didn’t. I had been visiting the woman for several years now –first in her apartment, where she’d been housebound, then in the nursing home –and I had watched the wasting of Odessa.

Two years ago she had been a strapping tall woman of strong ways, strong opinions, and very strong affections. Fiercely she had loved the church that she couldn’t actually attend. She’d kept abreast of congregational activities by telephone, by a gossip system, bu bulletins and newsletters and friends –and by me. She pumped me for information every time I visited her, striding about her apartment in crushed slippers, waving her old black arms in strong declaration of the things she thought I ought to do and the things I ought not, as pastor, to be doing.

I had learned, for my own protection, to check her mouth as soon as I entered her room. If the woman wore dentures, she was mad: She wanted her words to click with clarity, to snap and hiss with a precision equal to her anger. Mad at me, she needed teeth. But if she smiled a toothless smile on me, then I knew that her language would be soft and I had her approval – that week. She was particularly fierce regarding her children, the choir, the Sounds of Grace, though she had never heard them sing. She loved them. She swelled with a grand, maternal love for them. And if ever I had not, by her estimate, done right by these children, the teeth in the mouth of Odessa Williams were the flashing, clacking weapons of an avenging angel.

The disease that kept her housebound and sent her to the nursing home was cancer.

Cancer, finally, had laid her in the hospital.

And it was cancer that frightened the children when they crept around her bed on Sunday night, coming to sing carols to her. It put the odor of warm rot in the air. It had wasted Odessa to bone.

Mary and Dee Dee and Timmy and the others tried to touch nothing in the little space, not the bed, not the wall behind them. They grew solemn, unable to take their eyes from the form before them. One little lamp shed an orange light on the hollows of Odessa’s face, sunken cheeks and sunken temples and deep, deep eyes. The lids on her eyes were thin as onion skin, half closed; her flesh was dry like parchment; and the body that once was strapping now resembled broomsticks in her bed – skinny arms on a caven stomach, fingers as long as chalk. And who could tell if the woman was breathing?

Mary stood across the bed from me, not looking at me, gazing down at Odessa. Mary’s eyes kept growing larger.

So I whispered to all of them, “Sing.” But they shuffled instead.

“What’s this?” I whispered. “Did you lose your voices? Do you think she won’t like it?”

“We think she won’t hear,” said Mary.

“No, no, sing the same as you always do,” I said. “Sing for Miz Williams.”

Well, and so they did, that wide-eyed ring of children, though it was a pitiful effort at first, “Away in a Manger,” like nursery kids suspicious of their audience. But by the time the cattle were lowing, the children had found comfort in the sound of their voices and began to relax.Moreover, Odessa had opened her eyes, and there was a light in there, and she had begun to pick out their faces, and I saw that Mary was returning Odessa’s look with a fleeting little smile. So then they harked it with herald angels, and they found in their bosoms a first noel that other angels did say, and then a marvelous thing began to happen: Odessa Williams was frowning – frowning and nodding, frowning with her eyes squeezed shut, frowning, you see, with fierce pleasure, as though she were chewing a delicious piece of meat. So then Mary and all the children were grinning, because they knew instinctively what the frown of an old black woman meant.

Odessa did not have her dentures in.

And the marvelous thing that had begun could only grow more marvelous still.

For I whispered, “Dee Dee,” and the innocent child glanced at me, and I said, “Dee Dee, ‘Silent Night.’”

Dear Dee Dee! That girl, as dark as the shadows around her, stroked the very air as though it were a chime of glass. So high she soared on her crystal voice, so long she held the notes, that the rest of the children hummed and harmonized all unconsciously, and they began to sway together. “Round yon virgin, mother and child. . . .”

Odessa’s eyes flew open to see the thing that was happening around her. She looked, then she raised her long, long arms, and there, lying on her back, the old woman began to direct the music. By strong strokes she lifted Dee Dee Lawrence. She pointed the way, and Dee Dee trusted her, so Dee Dee sang a soprano descant higher and braver the she had ever sung before. Impossible! Stroke for stroke with imperious arms, Odessa Williams gathered her children and urged them to fly and sent them on a celestial flight to glory, oh! These were not children anymore. These were the stars. Their voices ascended on fountains of light to become the very hosts of heaven – so high, so bright and holy and high. Jesus, Lord, at thy birth! So beautiful.

And then that woman brought them down again, by meek degrees to the earth again, and to this room and to her bedside. There they stood, perfectly still, smiling in silence and waiting. How could anyone move immediately after such a wonder?

Nor did Odessa disappoint them. For then she began, in a low and smoky voice, to preach.

“Oh, children – you my choir,” Odessa whispered. “Oh, choir – you my children for sure. An’ listen me,” she whispered intently. She caught them one by one on the barb of her eye. “Ain’ no one stand in front of you for goodness, no! You the bes’, babies. You the absolute best.”

The children gazed at her, and the children believed her completely: They were the best. And my Mary, too, believed what she was hearing, heart and soul.

“Listen me,” Odessa said. “When you sing, wherever you go to sing, look down to the front row of the people who come to hear you sing. There’s alluz an empty seat there. See it?” The children nodded. They saw it. “Know what that empty space is?” The children shook their heads. “It’s me,” she said, and they nodded. “It’s me,” she whispered in the deep orange light. “Cause I alluz been with you, children. An’ whenever you sing, I’m goin’ to be with you still. An’ you know how I can say such a mackulous thing?” They waited to know. She lowered her voice, and she told them. “Why, ‘cause we in Jesus,” she whispered the mystery. “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.”

So spoke Odessa, and the children fell silent. So said the woman with such conviction and such fierce love that the children rolled tears from their open eyes, and they were not ashamed. They reached over and patted the bones of her body beneath the blankets.

Mary’s eyes, too, were glistening. The woman had won my daughter. In that incandescent moment, Mary had come to love Odessa Williams. She slipped a soft hand toward the bed and touched the tips of Odessa’s fingers, and she smiled and cried at once. For this is the power of a wise love wisely expressed: to transfigure a heart, suddenly, forever.

But these are good, contemplative tears. They are not like the tears my Mary cried on Christmas Eve.

Continued in Part 2.

2 thoughts on “The Manger Is Empty – Part 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: Merry Christmas! | Primordial Slack

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