Christmas Presence

By Brent King On December 15, 2014 Under Short Stories

Angel Topper_opt-2Amber was exasperating. She stood in the living room with a box marked “Christmas” and gazed at me with a sweet smile.

“Honey,” she asked, “can you help me put this angel on top of the Christmas tree.”

The word Christmas flew at me like a weapon. I ducked and waited a moment.

“Sweetheart,” she said again, this time a little more as if I were neglecting a wedding vow.

I scowled past my book.

“You know how I feel about Christmas,” I said, “about religion of any sort for that matter. It’s just a fantasy conjured up to comfort and control the masses. It’s not the real thing.”

“But Chris,” she said, “you don’t have to think of it that way. It can just be something fun for us to do together.”

Her eyes widened as she used all her skill to lure me in. My eyes narrowed to make up the difference.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” I said, “There are other fun things to do.”

She set the box down and turned toward me. “I don’t see why you dislike it so much,” she said, “Christmas is such a special time of year. You know how much your mother loved it. There is so much tradition and warmth in it. Can’t you feel it?”

“No, I can’t feel it. And why should I?” A wave of irritation swept over me as I motioned toward the partially assembled nativity in the dining room. “This Christ of Christmas has never spoken to me. I don’t see what all the celebration is about. Huh! All the carols and lights for a child that is just another baby!” I shook my head and chuckled resignedly. “No, I won’t be involved in such sentimental claptrap. If you want Christmas, you are going to have to do Christmas alone.”

I went back to my book and pretended not to notice my wife’s expression. She stared down at the box with a long face but soon turned and busied herself with the lights, humming a Christmas tune.

“Maybe he will speak to you this Christmas,” she said out of the blue, a few minutes later.

I shook my head and rolled my eyes but didn’t answer. Who could understand the mind of a woman?

A couple hours later, my book and the daylight were finished. A beautiful tree mocked me from the corner. Lights marched around deck, keeping time with the carol Amber was still singing. But the smells coming from the kitchen soothed my irritation.

“Whoa,” I said. “What are brewing in there? You’re making me hungry.”

I rounded the corner and felt a little guilty when I saw the spread on the table.

“’Tis the season,” she said with a smirk.

It was a meal worthy of something special. We ate in the silent glow of Christmas lights.

“Thanks hun,” I said as I pushed back from the table, “That was really good.”

Amber took a final sip of eggnog. “I think I’m going to do a little shopping at the mall tonight,” she said, “Want to come?”

“No, I think I will stay home and enjoy the tree.” I rolled my eyes, smiling faintly.

“I’ll be back before too late,” she said, “You can take care of supper dishes if you get bored.”

“I’ll try not to get bored,” I said, as she walked into the garage.

The last part of a ball game occupied me on the telly. Somewhere in the last inning the gas fireplace kicked on, and the flames wove shifting patterns around the walls and the tree, lulling me into their magic. I must have dosed off.

When I awoke, something was different. The tree glowed strangely. As I stared at it, the angel at its peak drew me in. It was a familiar angel. Mom had topped our tree with her since I was a kid. Now she gazed at me, but not with blank, porcelain eyes. No, the intensity in those eyes engaged me so raptly that I was not surprised when she spoke.

“You don’t believe in Him, do you,” she said.

“No,” I answered, “I don’t.”

“You should have been there when He came,” she said, “then you would believe.”

“Would I?” I asked. “What makes you think that?”

She didn’t answer but gazed at me with the most lovely smile. It caught me in its spell like Amber’s first smile and held me while the tree below her flared into a cascade of shimmering sparklers that lit up the room before sputtering into darkness. The fireplace still flickered near me, lighting up nothing in the night but the faces of men looking skyward.

And the angel: she grew until her wings spanned the sky.

“Peace on earth, good will toward men.” She sang with a voice as big as the heavens, joined in the anthem by a host of companions.

The music entranced me as I crouched, paralyzed, with sheep and shepherds. At last the light and music faded, and there she was again, above a gnarled olive tree.

“Go and see Him for yourself,” she said, “oh ye of little faith. Follow these shepherds. They will take you to Him.”

The fire snapped and spit while the shepherds gaped at each other, and then at me.

“Are you coming?” they asked. “Let’s go into town and see this child that the angels told us about.”

I stumbled through the night behind them, trying to keep up. They seemed to know where they were going, pointing toward a star overhead.

Before I could process it all, there he was: crying in a manger in front of me. It wasn’t as pleasant as the crèche Amber had just assembled. The animals smelled like, well, like animals and the baby looked ordinary, like any baby.

“An angel told me to name Him Jesus,” a man said, looking straight at me as he held the baby up for us to see.

“You mean an angel came to you?” I asked.  “An angel came to…” I hesitated and finished thoughtfully, “me too.”

“He’s God’s Savior,” he said, stroking the baby’s cheek, “the angel said so.”

The shepherds murmured their agreement. Somehow they all accepted this incredulous event so simply. But then, I had to admit that it was true: millions of angels had just heralded his coming right before my eyes. Why were all those heavenly beings so interested in this baby?

The lantern light cast shadows around the stable walls and an angel stared back at me from the top of our tree with blank, porcelain eyes. I started upright, peering suspiciously toward the fireplace.

I shook my head. “I must have dosed off,” I said under my breath.

I shifted in my recliner and tried to focus on the television, but soon the string of lights on the deck stole my gaze and my eyelids drooped. The lights twinkled and blurred and chased each other around the room like fireflies, flinging their colors upward in a flurry of motion until they illuminated the arch of the heavens above me. The brilliance dazzled me.

“Did you see my son?” The voice startled me, echoing from sky to sky. I shaded my eyes and squinted into light.

“Your son?” I asked slowly.

“Yes,” the voice said. “My beloved Son. Weren’t you just at the stable?”

“You mean—ahh—well I, I thought…”

“You thought my Son was just a dream?” the voice asked.

“I don’t…know,” I said.

“Come closer,” the voice said, “so you can know the Truth.”

A thrill shuddered through me as a hand touched my chest. Its warmth caught my heart in its grasp, drawing me up into the light. Millions of lights seemed as one, swaddling me in their mantle. I shut my eyes against the flood. The voice was quiet now, almost a whisper.

“The world is dreaming,” it said. “So I sent my Son to wake it up.” It paused and the hand trembled. “But most of the world would rather dream.”

It was my turn to tremble. Merciful heavens! This was God with His hand on my chest.

“This is the realest thing that has ever happened in my world,” God said. “On my word, this is the Truth.”

Slowly the truth came to me, a thought I had never seriously contemplated. “You mean the baby in the stable is….”

“Is God.” Passion charged His voice. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. It hurts, even though it was written into the script: ‘Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow.’”

The trembling in the hand became more distinct and a surge of adrenaline gripped me. I struggled to catch my breath.

“But why?” I asked, as I found my voice. “Why would you send your Son to a dirty stable.”

“Because I love you,” God said, pausing for a long moment. “I don’t want to be without you. It’s just that,” His voice wavered, “that you are so hell bent on thwarting me.”

“But I—”

“But I don’t see what all the celebration is about,” He said, and His voice began to sound very much like mine, “Huh! All the carols and lights for a child that is just another baby!”

The words pierced my mind like a winter’s chill, but the hand on my chest was a firebrand against it.

“I spoke too soon. I should have known,” I cried as the light faded around me. “I should’ve known…”

When I dared to open my eyes, the fireplace flickered around the room and the lights shimmered on the deck. I reclined, hardly breathing, in the low light for the longest time, with a hand on my chest.

I didn’t notice the music at first. It saturated the walls and windows and filled the entry and the hall. It came at last to me, like distant angels.

“There’s a song in the air! There’s a star in the sky! There’s a mother’s deep prayer and a baby’s low cry!”

I looked at the tree, but the angel was still. I switched the television off on the way to the window and peered out past the tree and the lights to the carolers on the street.

“And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing, for the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!”

As I stood and listened to my neighbors sing, the music became a plea. It was a plea I had heard many times before, but this time I listened.

“In the light of that star lies your future impearled. For that song from afar has swept over your world. Will your hearth be aflame, will your faithful voice sing? In your home this Christmas, will Jesus be King?”

It seemed that there was a pause in the carol, as if all were waiting for me to decide on my answer. A lifetime of unbelief and cynicism came up before me like a wave of nausea, but as I drew in the fresh air of Christmas, I knew what my answer must be. As they began the last verse, I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and sang along as best I could.

“I rejoice in the light, and I echo the song. That comes down through the night from the heavenly throng. Ay! I shout to the lovely evangel they bring, and I greet in His cradle my Savior and King!”

I waved as they turned toward the next house, wondering if they had any idea what had just happened in mine.

I was elbow deep in dishes, whistling that special carol, when the garage door opened. It wasn’t long before a muffled gasp hailed from the entry. I turned, and Amber—hands full of bags—stared at me. I smiled, but quickly returned to the dishes.

“Honey,” I asked, “can you help me?” I cleared my throat. “I think we need to rearrange the nativity scene. It isn’t quite right somehow.”

“But Chris,” she said at last, “what…”

“Oh, you don’t have to think about it that way Amber,” I said, “It can just be something fun for us to do together.”

A hand touched my shoulder. It felt a lot like the one that had been on my chest earlier. I turned to Amber with a smile and wiped a tear from her cheek with a sudsy finger. She took my hand.

“What has happened to you Chris?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, “but I think it has something to do with the angel you put on the tree.”

“Your mother’s angel,” she said, looking toward the living room.

“Yes,” I said, “a magical angel, a Christmas angel. Because of her, I’ve met the Son, the Father, and the Spirit, all in one night.” I gazed toward the tree, remembering. “Well, with the help of your Christmas lights and the neighbor’s carol,” I added.

Amber walked over to the crèche. She picked up a shepherd and moved him closer to the manger.

“You know how your mother was about Christmas,” Amber said, looking up at me from the shepherd, “this has her doings all over it.”

“And yours,” I said, “you all but told me that God would speak to me this Christmas, remember?”

She grinned at me and glanced back down to the nativity.

“So what’s not right with it?” she asked.

“The manger was closer to the door,” I said, as I moved it over.

“And just what makes you an authority on such things,” Amber asked in a way that made me realize that this was going to be a great Christmas.

I came up behind Amber and wrapped my arms around her. “You would have had to have been there.”

She clasped my hands and gazed up at me with a twinkle in her eyes. “Tis the season,” she said.

“The season indeed!” I said with a dose of Christmas cheer I should have given her long before now. “Listen, I think I can still hear the carolers singing down the street. Can you hear them?”

I tilted my head. Yes, I could hear them; a choir of voices singing distantly:

“And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing. For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!”

“I don’t hear anything,” Amber said, without taking her eyes off of me. “Perhaps it’s your angels still singing on the plains.”

“Perhaps,” I said with a squeeze. And just for an instant, I caught a twinkle in the eyes of an angel looking down on us from the top of our tree.

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