The little boy stopped in his tracks and pulled his mother’s hand tight to his chest. His father, catching up to them, stopped and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder. The fog of the boy’s breath sparkled for a moment with a halo from the streetlamp before vanishing into the cold night air, and his glistening eyes reflected a kaleidoscope of colors from countless lights on the amply decorated houses competitively decked out for the season. A passable version of Jingle Bells wafted down the street from a group of not-too-bad carolers but was soon overwhelmed by an odd assortment of recorded music pouring out of various holiday displays, some sacred, some not so much.
The thing that had stopped the boy as he skipped down the street was not the seemingly endless cascade of colored light nor one of the comical inflated cartoon characters in Santa hats, nor even the impressive electric train set and miniature Alpine village filling an entire front yard. The thing that stopped him stone still there on the cold December sidewalk was an old-fashioned crèche, a simple manger scene.
Compared to all the other neighborhood displays the crèche was almost embarrassingly understated. There were no shepherds or angels or magi in this tableau, just Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Their figures, though, were particularly well crafted and cunningly lit. They looked so real that one had to do a double-take to make sure that they were, in fact, sculptures and not human actors holding a pose. The figures looked decidedly Middle-Eastern and even, if such a thing is possible, a bit dislocated in time, as if they had been transported to this sanitary American cul de sac from a dusty, distant, Palestinian past. But perhaps the thing that was most arresting was the way they looked at you if you stood just where the boy and his parents were standing.
Mary is usually depicted with her hands on her heart as she ponders her child in the manger. Joseph, too, is most often shown gazing at the baby. But this scene was different. The boy, the mother, the father almost felt as if they had intruded, as if they had inadvertently stumbled into something serious and secret and would now have to be initiated into its mysteries. Joseph seemed to be giving them a stare of careful appraisal and assessment as he looked directly into their eyes. “Can you handle this? Can you treasure this precious thing you did not ask for, this responsibility, this honor, this gift that will give you everything and also demand everything? Can you stay with him when it would be easier to walk away?” he seemed to be asking. Mary, too, gazed intently, unblinking, into their eyes and seemed to be asking, “Do you understand the weight of this gift? Do you even begin to understand what you have here? Do you know what is happening here? Do you know who he is? Will you let him show you who you are?”
And then there was the baby. How to describe this baby? He, too, seemed to be looking straight into their souls, but in his face there were no questions. There was instead an indescribable mix of innocence and wisdom. There was promise and foreshadowing. There was the shining hint of divinity and the burbling drool of humanity. There was life, organic and messy, full of merriment and ecstasy and pain and tears and plain everydayness. There was light, revealing, illuminating, probing, warming, piercing and soothing, burning and healing. There was love, gentle and compassionate, fierce and yearning, ruthless and gracious. Love in all its purest shades. Love in all its joy. Love in all its anguish. There was all that in that baby face and something else. Deep in those eyes was God’s own Yes.
They stood transfixed at the crèche for what seemed like a long time—a moment out of time—one small family regarding another across and through time, still-life speaking to life in a held breath of stillness, until the not-too-bad carolers drew near and broke through the little family’s reverie with tidings of comfort and joy that were a just a bit rushed and ever so slightly out of tune.
A few minutes later, without much thinking about it, the boy, the mother and the father found themselves in their car making their way home. The father drove a little more slowly than usual as they rolled across the familiar bumps and dips of familiar streets. The boy watched the reflections of Christmas lights dance and swirl across the windows of passing cars. And the mother’s eyes were focused on something only she could see as she softly hummed Silent Night.