To Set Up a Complete Nativity Scene:
It’s Day 85 of my life-after Guatemala that I set out the nativity; it’s only now that I remember that the baby would be about 85 days old too.
It’s my only souvenir from Guatemala — a red soil formed Mary, three clay-combed wise men, a Babe the size of a thimble.
Headbands for the girls, a thin woven bracelet for each of the boys, a weaving made into bookmark for the Farmer’s Bible, my Mama’s. That was all, all in one hand, and just from a last-minute booth at the airport —- and the nativity. I hadn’t thought of it then that the little nativity was just bits of dirt shaped in hand and this clay nativity is who I am, one born native to the dirt, mud and spittle my place of origin. All I had thought was yes, a nativity to remember what had happened to me here. Hadn’t I come to the poor and been reborn?
Shalom plays with the figurines, clatters them about the clay plate, holds the sheep close to my face, “How did they make the wool, Mama?”
“Maybe a fingernail?” I gently fit mine into the clay trace of a Guatemalan one.
Into the wool of the lamb.
“So when I touch the sheep,” she places her little fingernail into one of the wool grooves too…. “I am touching someone from Guatemala?”
I nod. We are all clay, all family living on this ball of earth.
Shalom tucks the lamb by the shepherds, picks up an angel, and she sings it soft over the ox and shepherds. “Gloooorriiiaa… Gloria….”
Late I light the candle over the nativity’s angel and I remember the night eyes blinking out the window over Guatemala City, all those stars, that night I didn’t sleep after seeing her, the fingers long hovering over the keys, wondering if the baby’s cries now filled the deep black of that shack.
“Any day now.” She had said that, her hand on the curled life enlarging her full. “Due any day now. Just waiting.”
There’s a dog huddled back in a corner, a scaffolding of bones rubbing raw on a tent of skin. She’s sitting on one of two sheetless, salvaged beds, threadbare blankets thrown over mattress springs poking hard through. They’re squatters on land within the city dump. I don’t know how, where, six people sleep in this room. There’s toothbrushes sticking out of a crack in the corrugated tin. One of the daughters stands at the veil of the only window out.
“Will you have your baby here?” There’s a doll lying face down on the dirt floor. No, she says, no, she’d go to the hospital. “And your children? Your husband, he will take care of your children when you go to the hospital?” One of her little girls presses up shy against her leg.
Then it had come, a storm of words, her arms gesticulating wild, her eyes large and white.
Her husband is away trying to dry out from the alcohol that dulls the razor edge they’re living on here and their three girls are with her here, she strokes the youngest’s black hair, and then an older girl, hardly a teen, who has left to live with two thirty year old men, she comes and goes still now, and then this one, she waves a photo, this girl, she was to take care of her younger sisters when the baby comes but three days now, almost four, she is gone, lost, kidnapped — missing.
And no one can find her and they’ve searched everywhere and she’s asked all over and I think of the narrow hot, foul streets we have threaded back through to find this clinging family and the sounds in the shadows of the dark tin shacks and where is a ten year old girl in all of this? That’s our Hope’s age.
This mother’s lost a child the age of our child.
I glance over at the translator, around at our team. I want to fly down the streets, I want to call the missing child’s name. This is real and I’m really sitting here and this isn’t some script or a story on a screen but their very real lives and I can’t believe I’m just sitting here. What can we do? The police, we ask. Have you gone to the police? Yes, she says. Many times. I have told them everything, she says, waves the photo again. The mother wipes away her wet fear with the back of her hand.
But with no real address, the translator explains, this makes it hard to officially file anything. She needs her own piece of earth, to be native to a place, a place of origin. The mother holds the photo of her daughter on the round of her swollen abdomen. Her lost child held next to her coming child.
I can’t take my eyes off that smile in the slums.
When we ask how Compassion is helping her family, she flips back the sheets to the bare, stained mattress, pulls out a plastic bag stashed away, shows us letters from sponsors. There, the photo of even her missing daughter’s sponsor, their handwriting…
I read to the two youngest girls from the The Jesus Storybook Bible. I need a piece of heaven to steady me here on earth.
I tell them I brought the Bible for them, that it is theirs. The translator smiles and the middle daughter flips pages happy.
She has it now, the place of her origin.
Shaun asks Amanda if she will pray before we leave, and Amanda prays with fervency and humility and we are bowed and we are begging and Compassion staff translates and the Holy Spirit interprets moans, pulls back the veil and we see in, and God fills that shack with the life of Christ. Enlarged with hope, we stir. And all the alleys back, we have no words. No words.
Beside each other, Amanda and I walk the dump’s dirt quiet. A dog barks.
And then I murmur it because I have to deliver what’s moving within. “The baby….” She nods. We’re walking past piles of garbage. “That little baby’s safest in that womb.” It’s my throat that’s contracting, constricting. Amanda has no words but we don’t need them, cannot speak them. For a moment we catch each other’s eyes. Then around another corner.
That night, the next, many after, I had wondered when the pushing would come, when the womb would tighten and the baby would give way from the watery safe and when that coming child would howl in this world of lost children.
The baby must be 80 days old or more as the angel’s flame flickers bright over our Guatemalan clay nativity.
And I read it in Revelations 12 that part of the nativity scene I rarely remember and who thinks of this as the missing piece of Christmas?
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.
The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
I had felt it for real, the fire of that dragon about to devour a child the moment he was born in a Guatemalan dump and he waits with mouth open all over this ball of earth this moment, to consume the poor and the forgotten and the broken and oppressed and this is part of the Christmas story that can never be forgotten, that all the found children must always remember.
For who are the Christ Child’s hands and feet and warrior heart in this world of refuse but us?
And who but the children who wear the white of the wool of the lamb will put their hands into the hands of the weak and in His name snatch them from the fiery mouth of poverty and abuse and despair? We are all family, native to earth and heaven, and we were reborn for this.
Every child born into this world may be safe in the womb of Christ’s family.
I pick it up off the clay plate: the Babe, Almighty One the size of a thimble to save the lost from the devouring, Omnipotent God who comes to us in the beauty of the weak.
I hold the Child in my hand. The Christmas lights on the Tree blink bright hope.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ~ Matthew 25:40
Consider setting up a complete Nativity scene: give a chicken to a child & save a life from the mouth of poverty?
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