Every year, for nearly 40 years, I’ve written a Christmas story. Some of the best are collected in my book Twenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas. Now here’s this year’s offering, entitled “The Broken Baby.” Merry Christmas, everyone!
Somewhere along the line I have acquired a local reputation as a Master Gluer. For this I can thank my father, who had a deep-seated confidence in glue, always maintaining that broken things became stronger in the places where they were mended. People brought their broken things to him, and now they bring them to me. I have adhesives for every need: yellow wood glue, ceramic cement for china, epoxies, fabric adhesive, hot glue, on and on. And when in doubt, of course, fabulous all-purpose Super Glue—not, I hasten to add, never Krazy Glue, which is useless for anything except sticking your finger to your nose.
On the morning of Christmas Eve my doorbell rang and I opened to George Wembley, the verger of our church. Bearing a package under his arm, he looked as if he had just robbed a bank—eyes furtive, shoulders hunched, his whole frame faintly trembling. George is the most honorable, dependable man you could meet, so I wondered what was up when he scurried past me like a hunted hare and stood distractedly in my living room, searching, it seemed, for a place to hide.
I pointed him to a chair which he, sighing deeply, sank into as though taking a thousand pounds off his feet.
“George, what’s wrong? Can I get you some coffee? How about a toddy?”
Waving away my offers, he placed the package on his lap, stared at it for a full minute, then said in an ominous undertone, “Are we alone?”
“Yes,” I replied. As it happened, my wife was out until later than afternoon.
“Mike,” continued George, “I’m going to show you something, and I don’t want you to say anything or breathe a word of it to anyone. I just want you to fix it.”
The package was a sturdy brown shoe box tied with twine. With quivering fingers he loosed the knot and lifted the lid. I glimpsed tissue paper within.
“Come,” he said. “Please take this off my hands. I don’t trust myself even to pass it to you.”
I approached, stooped, and gingerly took up the box. What could it be—a bomb? Sitting, I placed the box on my own lap and gently parted the paper.
The first thing I saw was the head of a porcelain figure. Just the head. Then, wrapped separately, a pair of little legs. Then an arm. And finally the torso, with one arm still attached.
In four pieces. Porcelain polychrome, showing white along the breaks, hollow within. Immediately I recognized the Holy Child from the our church’s Christmas crèche.
“My word!” I exclaimed.
“Can you fix him?”
Fix him? Me—fix Him? I caught my breath at the scandal.
“I suppose,” I muttered. “But what …?”
“Swear to keep it to yourself.”
“I don’t know about swearing. But yes, I promise. I’ll seal my lips with epoxy.”
There wasn’t much to tell. In preparation for the Christmas Eve services, George had been arranging the crèche scene. He had set the infant carefully on a chair, awaiting placement in the manger, when somehow, while attending to another figure, he bumped the chair, knocking the Baby onto the terrazzo floor.
“That’s it,” said George. “I don’t need to tell you how I feel.”
No, he did not. To break a donkey, a shepherd, even Joseph or Mary—that was one thing. But the Star of the Show on His own Birthday?
While George had related his doleful tale, I fingered the four fragments to test how well they joined. All the edges fit cleanly, apart from a few tiny missing chips.
“Can you fix him?” repeated George.
“Well, we’re lucky the little guy didn’t shatter. Yes, I can patch him up. It’s the least I can do, considering how many times He has put me back together.”
“Will he be ready for tonight?”
Tonight? Hm—that was another matter. It was about nine a.m., and our family service was at seven. Ceramic glue should cure for twenty-four hours, but I knew that was an outside figure. If I got right to it, the gluing could be done by ten, which gave nine solid hours for drying. Yes, it was just possible. After all, we weren’t going to play dodge ball with this Baby. All he had to do was lie in his crib, where he could finish drying.
I assured George that little Jesus would be good as new for tonight, whereupon he left, I thought, a chastened but mollified man.
After that, I did set right to work, but did not finish until nearly noon. The problem was that all the pieces could not be joined at once. After attaching the legs and arm to the torso, that portion needed time to set before I could proceed with the head. Ideally the first part should have been left overnight, but through an ingenious arrangement of clamps the business was managed. Carefully I placed the assembly on the top shelf of the hall closet, which backs onto a hot air vent.
Now—don’t anyone breathe.
Throughout this process I’d been conscious of the sacredness of my task. Though I was touching porcelain, at times it seemed almost alive. Moreover, I was alone, the house steeped in a holy quiet.
It was not to remain so. For as it fell out, this was only the first of the day’s adventures. Hardly had I ensconced the babe when the phone rang, then the doorbell again, and on and on it went throughout the afternoon. A typical Christmas Eve, when in my experience events somehow always conspire to imitate, or at least to echo, the chaos and consternation of that first Christmas: the exhausted couple, no room at the inn, no midwife, nothing as it ought to have been.
By evening I scarcely had time to wolf down some supper before hopping into the car and dashing off to church.
+ + + + +
No one ever talks about this. But that first Christmas Eve, so long ago, Jesus was not the only child to be born in Bethlehem. Another baby came into the world that night, in rather different circumstances. The moderately well-off parents had a home of their own, on a hillside west of town. Their living room window afforded a lovely view of the Shepherd’s Field, about a mile off across the valley. If they had been watching that night, they might have seen the angels.
But they were not watching, they were busy with the birth. The house was full of relatives and friends, the table was laden with food and drink, and two midwives jostled for seniority. This, also, was a first child. The labor was difficult, but when the baby—a boy—finally appeared, he was robust and noisy—though not as noisy as the adults who continued partying into the wee hours.
It was a happy night.
+ + + + +
We arrive at church, my wife and I, just as the procession is heading down the aisle, so we slide into a pew near the back. I’m hardly settled after the opening hymn when I feel a tap on my shoulder.
It’s George Wembley.
“Have you got the baby?” he whispers.
Baby? What baby?
That baby is keeping warm on the top shelf of our hall closet.
Rising, I crane to get a view of the crèche at the front of the church. The manger is empty.
I sink back down. George is behind me, leaning over, awaiting a reply. I cannot look at him. In that moment, I suppose, I feel even worse than he must have felt that morning as he sat in my living room holding a bomb on his lap.
I have forgotten Jesus. It’s Christmas Eve and the manger is empty. It’s Christmas and I have forgotten the main thing, what it’s all about. How is this a mirror of my life?
“George,” I murmur, “I’m sorry—but … he’s not dry. His head came off …”
That’s right—compound the sin with lies.
“But listen, George—all’s not lost. Just leave it to me and I’ll fix it. I have an idea.”
If George says anything, I don’t hear it. I’m already up and heading across the aisle to where I’ve spotted our neighbor, Lisa Jenkins, with her daughter Maryann, a sweet girl of seven. In her arms she is cradling, bless her soul, a little doll. A blonde dolly in a pink dress, but never mind: desperate times, desperate measures.
“Lisa?” I whisper. “May I ask you something?”
Twice I have to explain the situation, along with my proposed solution, before finally Lisa leans over to have a word with her daughter. The little girl shakes her head. Mother remonstrates; Maryann waggles her pigtails more vigorously. Looking back at me with a pained expression, Lisa turns up empty palms, shrugs. No deal.
Thinking, for some reason, that an avuncular neighbor might carry more influence than a mother, I try my luck with the girl myself. Nothing doing.
Inspired, I whip out my wallet, peel off a new five dollar bill, and dangle this talisman before the child’s eyes.
“Maryann,” I intone, “just give me your dolly and this will be yours.”
Only later does the dark irony of this ploy dawn on me: I am trying to buy Jesus. I might as well offer the girl thirty pieces of silver.
Nevertheless, it works. Reluctantly, Maryann accepts the bribe and releases her doll into my sweaty hands.
Not wasting a moment, I make for the side aisle. Barely am I halfway along when a piercing voice cries out, “Mommy! I want my dolly!”
And again: “I want my dolly back!”
Under my breath, I utter words that should not be spoken in a church. But I don’t stop. No way am I giving this dolly back. It’s mine, I paid for it. At least, I rented it for an hour, fair and square. Besides, the mission I’m on is more important than a little girl’s whiny whim. Far more important. I am restoring Christ to Christmas.
Am I not?
Or am I just trying to cover my butt?
I set the doll in the manger, arrange her as best I can, then return to my place burning with embarrassment. No, more than embarrassment: shame.
The doll doesn’t look right. I know that. Everyone knows it. They all saw me do it. There was tittery laughter. It looks stupid, that doll. What’s more, little Maryann has turned up the decibels. She’s crying and yelling—“I want my baby! I want my baby!” To my ears it sounds like, Crucify him! Crucify him!
This is all my fault. My fault for forgetting—betraying—Jesus. On Christmas Eve, I’ve crucified Him.
After five minutes of this royal ruckus, poor Maryann has to be escorted by her mother out of church.
My fault. My own most grievous fault.
If this happened at any ordinary service, it would be just one of those things. But at Christmas everything is magnified, every least impropriety gets hauled into the great shining light of this wonderful night.
At Christmas, as on Good Friday, we are judged, and all—all—found wanting.
+ + + + +
That other baby boy, the one born in Bethlehem the same night as Jesus, is named Micah.
A few weeks before Micah’s second birthday, he is outside playing in the garden. Utterly content. The day is hot, bright, very still.
There comes a sound. A clamor. Far away, drawing nearer.
Horses. Horses’ hooves. Many horses, thudding along the valley west of town, then up the hill, then clattering in the street outside.
There are shouts, men’s voices raised, then women’s, and a noise of clanging steel. Other sounds, strange, unknown, ugly. Children crying. Women sobbing, wailing.
Mother. Must find mother.
Micah runs into the street.
There she is! Mama!
Mama: the last word Micah will ever speak.
His Calvary comes early.
With a flash of silver the darkness descends.
+ + + + +
Sitting in church that Christmas Eve, nursing my shame, I don’t hear anything at all of the service. Not the readings, the sermon, the carols, nor a single word of the liturgy. Nothing.
Until near the end.
Then I hear one thing. One small noise that I have never heard before in church, nor ever since.
I don’t know why it is. Maybe the placement of the priest’s microphone is different, or something like that. Maybe it’s supernatural.
But when he takes the bread and says the words of Christ, “This is My body, broken for you,” I distinctly hear the snap of the wafer as he breaks it. A dry, brittle sound like an autumn twig cracking underfoot.
Broken for me.
I keep saying these words as I go forward to receive the eucharist.
Passing the crèche, I could swear that dolly smiles at me.
Back in the pew, for the first time that evening, I relax. I can feel myself being put back together. As we stand to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, I remain quiet. If I open my mouth, I’ll either sob or roar with laughter.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given.
He—Christ—is the Master Gluer, mending my brokenness, making me whole.
+ + + + +
Not until the following Sunday did I hear the end of this story from Lisa Jenkins.
First thing on Christmas morning, little Maryann rushed into her mother’s room, bright-eyed and breathless, saying, “Mommy, guess what? My dolly told me she liked being Baby Jesus!”
“Really?” Lisa was still rubbing sleep from her eyes. “That’s wonderful, dear.”
“And guess what else she said.”
Thoughtfully, Maryann stuck her tongue in her cheek. Finally she said, “Mommy, she told me that lying in that manger, with all those people looking at her, she felt really alive!”
Mike Mason’s best Christmas stories are collected in his book Twenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas.
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