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Father McEvoy's Christmas Crib

Look closely now, because it's the night before Christmas, and you sometimes see things other-year eyes miss.

The great brass-bound oak door of the stone church opens to our thoughts, and we are allowed a small glimpse of the mysteries inside.

There's a Christmas tree next to the pulpit, and hanging it around, 37 small coloured light bulbs. They are all Father McEvoy can afford this year. He's cut the tree himself from a farm out in the country, and hauled it back on a small trailer behind his bicycle. Paper and tinsel saved from last year complete the decorations.

Alongside the tree is the Christmas crib. It's a simple scene, made from twigs and straw and bits and pieces scrounged from the same farm, but lovingly put together. Mary and Joseph and the animals are pieces almost as old as Father McEvoy, and he doesn't remember now where they come from. They have a dignity which reflects perfectly his joy in his handiwork, and the light from the tree gives a soft halo to the Holy Family.

Father McEvoy is standing in the shadows to one side of the door. He's just returned from tea, and he wants to watch quietly awhile before the first folk arrive for Christmas Eve mass. Every year, as he meditates, he finds something new in what he sees.

He has been there only a few minutes, however, when a faint cry startles him. He doesn't move, but listens carefully to see from where it's come. There is again, a whimper. Rather like a lost kitten. Inside the church.

Father McEvoy moves softly down the aisle, peering into the dimness each side. The cry again, clearer now. Somewhere near the tree. Father McEvoy moves closer, almost treading like a kitten himself.

He stops, at first in amazement, then in awe, as he reaches the Christmas crib. "Baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn," says Luke' story of the birth of the Christ-child. No crib for a bed. This Jesus should be a doll, lovingly brought out each year. Now he has 10 very alive fingers - sucking on half of them - and black eyes that dance in the round face when they see the priest.

"Hello, little one," says Father McEvoy as he kneels beside the crib, his sense of awe deepening. "Where have you come from? Does our heavenly Father have a sense of humour I had not suspected?" (The baby clutches at the weather-beaten finger extended to it, sucks it, before its face begins to pucker with the realisation that no milk will be expressed by this dry teat.) "Or has another father reached the edge of despair?" he muses.

The old priest gently picks up the small form in the hope of calming the small storm building on its now-wrinkled face. He pauses, half-kneeling, as a fleeting fire-flicker of light catches the corner of his eye, then continues rising slowly. The movement is calming the child, and practised hands that have baptised a thousand more-reluctant infants cradle it carefully as he quietly talks to the absorbed face.

"Mary has travelled a long way, and she is exhausted. Or that's how the story goes, little one," says the priest. "She has a husband who is not her coming child's father, and that at least is a comfort to her growing distress. Better, I think, than to have a father who is not a husband, nor any town to call home.

"But Joseph must be 'ceeding anxious by now, turned away from every door in a town that is supposed to be home. At the end of his tether with the baby coming, and more than thankful to find the humblest of doors open, even if it is no better than a bed of hay."

A muffled sob comes from the dimness beyond, but Father McEvoy continues to walk slowly round in front of the crib, rocking the baby. Neither does he seem to hear when a door opens somewhere in the increasing gloom, and a stifled gasp. Instead, he appears to gather the light from the Christmas tree around him like a cloak, and his voice draws a picture that has the universe holding its breath.

"Do you know, little one, why Mary is so apprehensive this night? This night that should be the greatest joy in her young life. It is because they do not understand what God has wrought, her people. She is heavy with child, long before she has been wedded, and her people are filled with outrage. The people of God know the law and justice, and a girl who needs understanding is shaking before it. It is the lonely and the wanderers and the outcasts who are given the real understanding of the miracle of this new birth. And with what joy they greet it. Later, others will come to understand. But for now, the song of the angels is for their ears alone.

"Every Mary needs her Joseph, doesn't she, little one. But she also needs her father, do y'know? We don't hear anything of Mary's father in the stories, but I sometimes wonder what he is thinking. Has he cast her out at the news she is pregnant, and now regrets it, but knows not how to say so without losing face.

"Pride is a hard master, my cherub. But there was once a father with a rebel of a son, so our Lord says, who ached so much for that boy's return he could not contain himself with joy when the lad did come back. And you know, I think that's just like God with us."

The old priest smiles down at the child, which by now has fallen asleep in his arms. He bends down and places the baby back in the crib, then straightens up slowly.

"There are angels enough around here to watch you for five minutes while I go and change my clothes. And you are the best baby Jesus we've yet been blessed with."

The brass-bound door opens briefly and closes as Father McEvoy leaves, turning only a moment to bestow a blessing on the scene at the pulpit. And if the figures of Mary and Joseph seem more alive than they have ever been before . . . and if an extra figure has joined them, perhaps it is the inn-keeper, or the first of the wise men.

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(c) Copyright John McNeil, all rights reserved. Apart from the purposes of fair review, this work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, physical or electronic, without the express permission in writing of the author. He may be contacted at jandhmcneil<a>paradise.net.nz