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Mark Richard once wrote a poignant piece of first-person fiction in The New Yorker entitled “The Birds for Christmas.”
In it, the narrator describes a childhood Christmas spent as an orphan in a children’s hospital ward together with a friend made in the hospital halls (ironically) named Michael Christian. Christian is an African-American boy who wants nothing for Christmas except to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s spooky black-and-white thriller The Birds. A nun suggests that the boys watch Frosty the Snowman, but Christian protests: “Forget Frosty… I seen that a hunrett times. I want to see The Birds, man. I want to see those birds get all up in them people’s hair. That’s some real Christmas to me.”
One night the week before Christmas, the boys receive a visit when a priest and some priests-in-training make the rounds in the children’s ward. One of them reads Luke’s Christmas story, and Michael Christian is fascinated by the fear of the shepherds: “‘Now, you say the shepherd guys was so afraid, right?’ ‘Sore afraid. The shepherds had never seen angels before, and they were sore afraid.’”
Michael Christian finally convinces the night nurse on duty, on the evening before Christmas Eve, to let them watch The Birds. The movie, and Richard’s story, finish as the orphans share a haunted Christmas Eve:
When the movie was over, it was the first hours of Christmas Eve. The night nurse… told us to go to sleep, and rolled her chair back to her chart table. In the emptiness you could hear the metal charts click and scratch, her folds of white starch rustle. Through a hole in the pony blanket I had pulled over my head I could see Michael Christian’s bed. His precious Afro head was buried deep beneath his pillow. At the dark end of the ward a baby cried in its sleep and then was still. It was Christmas Eve, and we were sore afraid.
The ambushed experience of those shepherds, midway through a sleepy night shift in the rolling Judean hills, shakes the hap-happy nonchalance out of our experience of Luke’s Christmas story. In the hills outside of Bethlehem, without warning, an angel appears to them, and divine glory dazzles the dark. And they’re sore afraid.
Those unsuspecting shepherds had come close to the Lord of the cosmos, powerfully and palpably present. The Holy Other, glimpsed as Flame that blazed in the bush to Moses; as the Cloud and Fire that led Israel roundabout through the wilderness; as the dark, thundering Majesty that rested on Mt. Sinai–this One was near.
Don’t be terrified, says the angel. But the subsequent angelic announcement shouldn’t make us shrug, either: that dazzling Glory that tented in the wilderness and terrified anyone in its proximity has come among us, become breakable for us, would bleed for us.
Eleventh-century mystic Bernard of Clairvaux gets the appropriate response to the announcement of the angel just right: “The Word has been born a child. It is only right that you should be astounded.”
That’s some real Christmas to me.