(Here is IT’S WONDERFUL in its entirety. Feel free to share it. Merry Christmas!)
I stared at the lost solitaire game on my computer screen and considered the wreckage of my life. It was early on Christmas Eve. I sat alone in my study. Already my wife had retreated to bed after some argument or another. The only growth for us was ever farther apart. Everything I touched seemed to deteriorate through my involvement. The company that had provided my livelihood since I was a young man was shutting down after the holidays. I couldn’t pay my double-mortgaged, maxed-out credit card bills now – what was I going to do without a job? My life was a mess. And worse, my mess was contagious. I thought maybe it would have been better if I’d never been alive in the first place.
Suddenly I became aware that I was no longer alone. I was startled to be joined by an elfin older gentleman wearing an outdated dark suit with an old-fashioned, white ruffled shirt. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but he looked sort of familiar.
“Hello,” he said, his voice friendly, almost child-like.
“Who let you in?” I asked.
He smiled, a twinkle in his eye, “Nobody. Let myself in. But you sort of invited me when you were thinking it would be better if you weren’t around.”
Something about his friendly tone, about his innocence, sparked recognition. “Clarence! You’re Clarence the angel from that Jimmy Stewart movie! The Christmas movie.” I was excited to know who he was, not to mention that he was a celebrity. Almost immediately, though, I was chilled by rationality. “But . . . how, I mean . . .”
“Tut tut tut. I have some things to show you.”
“You’re going to show me how much better off people are because I’ve been alive, right? I’m going to get to see how miserable everyone would be if I hadn’t lived, just like in the movie.”
“Something like that,” was all Clarence said. He beckoned me to follow him.
I was feeling better already. Even though I couldn’t explain Clarence, I was ready to be transformed by what he was going to show me. I’d seen the movie a hundred times, after all, and now it was my turn to see how important – how wonderful - my life had been.
Our first stop was my old high school. We went into the lobby – locked doors mean nothing to an angel – and he led me over to the trophy case. Clarence didn’t say anything; he just pointed down to a trophy on the bottom shelf. I got on my knees to look. The marble foundation and silver pillar were topped by a golden baseball player frozen in a home run swing.
I read the trophy’s inscription. ”It’s a mistake.”
I looked up at Clarence but he just nodded back toward the trophy. I pressed my face to the glass of the case to make sure I had read the inscription correctly, then I got back up. ”It’s a county championship trophy from my senior year here in high school.”
“Yes indeed it is.”
“But . . . it’s a mistake. We lost in the semi-finals. I know. I know better than anybody. We were losing by one run in the ninth inning with two outs and two men on base. Coach put me in to pinch hit – said he had ‘a hunch.’ Then . . . “
“You struck out. The game was over. No semi-final, no championship game. I know, I know – I was briefed before I came.”
“So you know that the trophy’s a mistake? Then why . . .”
“It’s no mistake. Remember, you don’t exist.” Somehow he was too cheerful about this for my taste. “So you weren’t there to strike out.”
“And someone else . . .”
“Hit a home run. The team went on to win the state championship in the next game.” He sounded like a real fan.
“Well, I certainly feel better now,” I said, my sarcasm covering the sting of my long-ago high school failure.
Clarence ignored me, and we moved on.
Although we had but that moment been at the school, we were instantly in the busy streets of a city where hurried pedestrians on last-minute Christmas missions passed and re-passed, heavy laden with packages and shopping bags full to the brim with presents for friends, relatives, and those for whom gifts were obligated. Business-people spilled out of the office buildings and onto the streets, walking the crooked line of post-office party inebriation. The streets were lit with festive lights of all colors, and the bass beat of dance music pounded through the doors of nearby bars and clubs, momentarily louder as revelers opened the doors to enter. Here was a thriving metropolis, not the dead city in whose suburbs I lived.
“Where are we?” I asked Clarence, both disoriented and energized by the sudden busyness around me.
“Why, it’s your hometown. Don’t you recognize it?”
I looked around for something familiar on which to anchor my perception. “I don’t see anything.” Just then I noticed the street names on the corner sign. “If this is my town, well, then it’s been revitalized overnight. This is the warehouse district. There’s been no life down here for years.”
“In a way, it has been ‘revitalized overnight’ as you say. In less time than that, actually.”
He motioned for me to follow once again, and I complied until we were at the base of a megalith of a skyscraper, the like of which had never existed in my distinctly lowrise burg. Silently, Clarence craned his neck until his nose pointed to the top of the building.
I followed Clarence’s gaze. There, at the top, I could just make out the red and green neon letters that stretched across. I blinked and read the sign again.
“They’re lit that way especially for Christmas,” Clarence said, shaking his head. “Isn’t that pretty?”
“But that’s my company’s name up there. We could never afford a display like that. We’re in the red, not the red and green.”
“This is your company’s building. They . . .”
“That’s crazy. I work out at the old Industrial Park. Out of the city. We don’t even own the space there, we rent, and the lease is up soon, and we can’t . . .” Remembering my work troubles took some of the rush off of the trip with Clarence.
“Remember, my friend,” Clarence said, and reached up to put an arm around me. I had him by a good half-foot. It was like being comforted by the grandfather I never knew. “Remember that you don’t exist. Never have. You weren’t there to fake your resume to get that job with the company. You weren’t there to sneak out when you were supposed to be working, or to inflate those expense reports.” I must’ve looked awfully down because I saw a wisp of sympathy in his expression just then. “You were never really qualified for that position. That’s all. You did the best you could . . . most of the time.”
“But I’ve been loyal.” Loyal to my paycheck anyway. “And I’ve done some good things for the company.” Please don’t ask me to name them, I thought.
Clarence just continued his spiel. “The woman who got the job that you weren’t there to beat her out of – well, there was a woman of vision. She developed a new process in the first year she was with the company, and they patented it and things just took off from there. She’s the president now.”
“So, they were better off without me? Like the high school baseball team?” I took in the activity around me. My city had grown up around my company. But that wasn’t exactly right. It was neither my city nor my company. Not anymore. “I kept all this from happening?”
Clarence grinned and patted me on the arm. “It sure looks that way. You really messed things up, didn’t you?”
“Clarence! The baseball team, the company . . . the whole city! HA! You’re not making me feel better. You better start making me feel better, Clarence. One of us might end up getting hurt.” I knew it came across as a threat, but I didn’t care. I just needed to decide which one of us I was going to hurt. People walking by began to swing wide around us as I grew more agitated. “I think you’ve forgotten the drill. You show me how things areworse because I wasn’t around, then I feel all better and me and Donna Reed . . . I mean me and my wife . . . live happily ever after. And you get your wings.”
“Already got them. They fold up under my clothes.” He smiled proudly and pointed over his shoulder. “You’d never know those wings were there.”
A besotted young professional had stumbled next to me. I reached out and steadied him by his elbow as Clarence talked on about his wings. At first the young man looked surprised, and then like he was going to accuse Clarence of being out of his head. But when he looked at my escort, he smiled with recognition, signaled a thumbs-up, and said, “Atta boy, Clarence!” The young man took a couple of steps away from us and, without looking back, pulled a flask from his overcoat. He shook his head as he threw the bottle into the trash.
The nature of this encounter took the edge off my antagonism, and I just wondered where Clarence would take me next to further pummel me with my failure.
I returned my attention to Clarence who was having a conversation with . . . nobody.
“Oh, yes.” Clarence looked like he saw someone there to talk to. Even more disturbing, he seemed to hear the other half of the discussion. Passersby gave us an even wider berth. “Yes, that does remind me. Should I?”
“Clarence.” No response – at least not to me.
“You really think so? It might overdo it.”
He came out of the trance or whatever. “Let’s go,” he said, and didn’t wait for me to reply before he was off. I followed. We seemed to step from the city street onto a suburban sidewalk in one stride. “All this has been a setup for the good stuff, right Clarence?” I asked hopefully. He just kept walking. I braced myself for what was coming next.
Clarence and I approached a large house. In a subdivision of huge homes, this was the neighborhood mansion. It loomed, impressive as the downtown skyscraper, at the end of a cul-de-sac. We strolled across the landscaped yard, dodging Santa, Rudolph, Mrs. Santa Claus, and a variety of other lighted Christmas displays. We had to be careful not to trip over the camouflaged green extension cords running everywhere. “Man, Clarence, this is something. I’m doing good if I can get a few lights strung around the bush out front of my house.” I stopped and grabbed Clarence gently on the shoulder. “Why are we here, Clarence? There’s nobody around here that would have known me. This is a little out of my socio-economic class.”
Clarence moved gently out from under my hand. We were right next to the house now. He walked around to a window on the side, then motioned for me to have a look through it.
I looked around to see if the next part of Clarence’s plan to make me feel better involved my arrest as a peeping Tom. It was then that I noticed all the cars parked out front, and that all the lights inside seemed to be on. We’d arrived at a party. It was appropriate that Clarence had brought me to a home that reeked of success where I was to be on the outside looking in.
I stood next to Clarence, peering over some shrubbery and through the full-length, multi-pane window. There was indeed a party going on inside beneath the cathedral ceilings. I thought about the contrast to the artificial tree that my wife and I joylessly put up and decorated every year. Last year, we hadn’t gotten to the decorating part – something about which chair to move to make room for the thing had launched us into a battle that stifled what little Christmas cheer we had been able to manufacture for the occasion. This year the whole mess was still in boxes in the crawl space. Neither of us had mentioned the pathetic excuse for a fake tree – no use injecting another catalyst for argument when there were plenty of things to fight about already.
She was never really much on Christmas anyway. She said it was really a time for kids, and since we couldn’t . . . I forced my attention back to the party through the window. “Looks like a lot of fun. And lots of food and drinks. I don’t suppose we could . . .”
“Could?” Clarence looked puzzled. “Oh, go inside? That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? But no, no, no. We can do what we need to do from out here.” His cheeriness was certainly aggravating.
“And what is it we need to do?”
“Just watch.” Clarence pointed toward one of the doors into the party room.
Where Clarence had pointed was a woman who greeted with hugs and kisses a couple that looked to be just arriving. This hostess wore a long black dress. I couldn’t see who she was as her back was to me. The guests shed their coats, and the hostess turned to call someone to come get them.
As I caught the hostess’s profile I had to remind myself to breathe. “Clarence . . .” I grabbed him by the front of his shirt.
Two children answered the hostess’s call. They took the coats and a playful kiss each from their mother. It was all so easy to put together.
I pulled Clarence closer. “This isn’t . . . I didn’t . . .”
Just then my wife was joined by a debonair, some would say “dashing,” gentleman just a little older than she and I. She slid her arm around his waist as he joined in welcoming conversation with the new arrivals.
I had to turn away. I pulled Clarence with me. “This isn’t fair. What are you trying to do, get me to off myself? You know, I never really considered that an option until you came. That stuff about not being born, I mean, it was about not being born. It wasn’t about ending things now. Until now.”
Even though I had a tight grip on the front of his shirt, Clarence didn’t look concerned, at least not about his safety. I guess I couldn’t have really hurt him anyway. I mean, what can you do to an angel? But there was concern in the way he looked at me. Concern forme.
I let go. “It’s not your fault, I know. But Clarence, what’s the point?” I sat down on the grass, bathed in the white light of a glowing Frosty the Snowman decoration next to me. I put my head in my hands. “What’s the point of showing me these things? What’s the point of . . . anything? I mean, if I just make things worse, then what good is it? What good am I?”
I felt like I was in back in 2nd Grade, in the principal’s office sitting in a wooden chair too big for me, my legs dangling as my teacher and the principal and my mother told me I was “bad.” And I knew it was true. Then and now. I looked up at Clarence through a fog of tears that came from giving up. Even trying not to cry was worthless.
“Yes, you have hurt a great many people. You’ve made many mistakes.” He patted me on the head, an action so demeaning and yet so . . . right, coming from him. “Now you’re ready.” He announced my readiness like I had accomplished something.
“For what, Clarence?”
“To see what Christmas really means.” He put out his hand and helped me up.
“Great.” I said. “What mall are we going to? You know I hate to shop.”
Clarence kept hold of my hand. “Everything I’ve shown you so far has been in the present. Yes, a different present because you were not a part of it, but where you are going now might be a little harder for you to take.” He got that look like he was talking to someone else again. “Quite right,” he said to the unseen presence. Then back to me, he said, “Not so much where, but when you are going.”
“Is this going to be a Dickens thing? Look, I’m not Scrooge and I don’t think I could take seeing myself as a little boy. It’s bad enough seeing my adult shortcomings. So if you’re going to take me back to my childhood . . .”
“Tut, tut, tut. Don’t worry, much farther back than that. You’re going back to where Christmas really got it’s meaning.”
“Oh, the manger and all that?” As fantastic as it sounded, I brightened a bit at the prospect of seeing the baby and the shepherds and the wise men and all that. I guessed angels could do anything, and now that he had his wings – well why couldn’t we go back a couple thousand years?
“You just kneel down a little. And shut your eyes. It might be less of a shock.”
I went down on one knee, figuring that would be an appropriate posture. It seemed like there was always a shepherd or a wise man in a pose like that in the manger scenes.
“Goodbye? You’re not coming with me?”
“This you need to do alone. Now, close your eyes.”
Already his voice was fading. I shut my eyes tight and bowed my head. I was a little scared but even more excited with anticipation. After having my nose rubbed in so much of my failure, it would be wonderful to see a new life full of such promise. But I couldn’t help wondering – what was the point? What was I supposed to do when I got there?
The first thing I noticed was the smell. The stench burned my nostrils. The air was redolent of rotting meat, of the acrid stink of shed blood.
This all happened in an instant and my brain raced to process the sensory input. The grass of the lawn had given way to bare ground. Sand pushed by an arid, unforgiving wind stung my face and hands. I began to sweat under my winter clothes.
It was no longer night. I opened my eyes and the soft glow of the decorative snowman had been replaced by the blaze of the sun. I couldn’t see anything at first as my eyes struggled to adjust to the change. It was like awaking from a summer nap or emerging from a movie theater after a matinée.
I began to be aware of groaning. Of course there would be groaning because, well, birth was painful. Even His birth. But these groans sounded too deep to be coming from a woman’s throat.
I looked down away from the sun as I knelt there and images began to form before my eyes. I noticed something shining in the dust and reached out for it. I picked up the metal object and felt its shaft that ended in a sharp point and the flat head at the other end. It was a large nail. As it came into focus I saw that it was crudely fashioned; it looked as if it had been tooled by hand, not like the machined nails for sale at the hardware store.
I looked up a little as I got used to the light and saw that there was a tree just in front of me. I heard the faint sounds of weeping behind me, and further back what sounded like a restless, angry crowd. In front of me was only the groaning.
My gaze was drawn up the trunk of the tree. The sun was directly behind the top of the tree. I blinked against the light and for the first time saw Him hanging there.
“Clarence,” I whispered, “you’ve gotten me to the wrong end of it.”
I could only make out His silhouette. The shadow slowly, rhythmically rose up and down. He breathed in deeply with every movement upward. Each time He eased Himself down He let out a lung rattling, groaning exhale.
I felt moisture in the wind now. The breeze picked up speed. A storm was blowing in. From the distance I heard a roll of thunder.
Clouds began to move across the sun and I could see Him more clearly. I wanted to look away but my attention was locked upon His suffering. I was sick with the scene and with the stench of this place of death. I swallowed hard against the taste of last night’s partially digested dinner. I pushed the point of the nail against my palm to fight any urge to faint.
The sun was completely blotted out now and I could see . . . everything. The pierced wrists and feet and the blood and the sweat and His face filled my awareness. I was so alive, so awake to what was going on that I could hear the drops of blood that ran from His wrists and plopped into the dusty ground.
I dared to look at His face. He was not handsome, there was nothing in His features to draw me to Him, but still, there was something – His eyes! The most beautiful, most knowing eyes I had ever seen. As those eyes turned to meet mine I was first filled with awe.
Then I was gripped by terror. He knew me. He knew me in a way that I did not know myself. He knew beyond my ability to condemn myself how much of a failure I had been. He knew everything Clarence had shown me and more. He knew how badly I had messed up not just my life, but how I had sucked so much potential from the lives around me. I searched His eyes. All I could see was a hint of accusation.
The rise and fall was much slower now. He seemed to gather up all of His strength to push up to take in a breath. My stomach unleashed a tremendous spasm as He rose there above me. I did not throw up as I expected, but rather heaved a great sobbing sigh. I wept.
I could not take my eyes from His. As He lowered Himself I began to see that I had misread those eyes. I had seen them through the gauze of self-condemnation. It was not accusation at all; in fact what was there in His gaze was quite the opposite.
I felt myself fading from the scene. I had seen what I needed to, just as Clarence had said. I cried as I drifted away, but the tears were for joy as well as for His suffering. My last perception of that place and time was his articulation of what I had read in His eyes. He rose up, took in another deep breath, looked deep into my being, and said this in the harsh whisper that was all He could manage:
I’d typed out the experience while it was fresh. Now what? As I turned the nail over in my hand, I made a plan.
I got up from my desk and climbed to the crawlspace. As quietly as I could, I pulled down the box with the parts of our scraggly fake Christmas tree. It took me a while, but I got it all set up in the living room. I softly sang Christmas carols I thought I had forgotten as I strung the lights and hung the ornaments. After the tree was decorated, I plugged in the lights. The soft multi-colored glow chased the midnight gloom from the room. It matched the warm light that filled my being.
My wife will be so surprised in the morning. Christmas morning!
I know it’s not much, but I’ve got to start somewhere.
By Dave Simpson, theunexpectedpastor.wordpress.com