What Child is This? – Part One

What Child is This? – Part One

Father Eric knelt to pray in the college chapel just before Evensong a few days before Christmas. The long, high dark of the church leapt away behind him, a dusk he used to love for the star-like glimmer of the stained glass and the whispers that filled its watchful heights. Tonight though, it was only a vast, chilled cave at his back. Even the rustling far behind him in the shadows did not turn his head.

It would have once. When he first came to be chaplain he knew, sure as he took his own breath, that the great angels carved in the dark wooden rafters of the ceiling sometimes stirred. He could swear it. A half smile, a teasing beat of a great wing just to keep him lively as he went about his work in the echoing old place. They laughed at him, they sang, even if he only caught the faintest echoes of their song when he entered and they froze in holy mischief. Once, the whole world hummed with music and the birds told of a country far up in the sky and the trees he passed in the lane looked as if they knew great secrets if he could only learn their language.

But now, all was silent. The music was gone, the angels did not laugh or stir, and the rustling in the far back pews was only old Father Jonas with his wild eyes and shuffling steps, setting the hymnbooks straight and lighting the candles for the choir. Since the letter had come a month before, Eric felt that a great door had slammed in his face, for the world had become a silent place in which he was utterly alone. The day the letter came, he had staggered into his chapel and knelt, as he did now. His own voice echoed off the stones in the awful dusk of that afternoon, rose to the rafters and when he was exhausted, died. That was when the hush began, a silence so mighty he felt that he must have gone suddenly deaf. At his first cry the angels froze and the music ceased.

Now, he set his elbows on the alter rail, put his chin in his hands and let his shoulders slump like a very small boy. His clerical collar cut uncomfortably into his neck, and the crèche scene next to the altar caught his despondent gaze. The choir boys loved the life-sized figurines and this year, in defiance of the rationing and restraint imposed upon them by the war, they had decked the figures out in brilliant old shawls and cast off clothes. But all Eric saw was the empty manger at heart of it all. It was empty by long tradition, of course, for the children could not place the baby within it until Christmas day. But a deep line of fear rutted his face at the sight.

“Where are you?”

He barely formed the words under his breath. He was a priest, but his heart was as empty of God as that manger and no angels or wise men sang to announce the coming of a child who would fill it. The only news that came to him was war and pain, and it came not in angel’s songs but in telegrams whose tiny typewritten letters unraveled his faith thread by thread. The words of Advent echoed in his mind, the words he proclaimed as priest in the services of this season; “come, Lord Jesus, come.” But the holy child had come thousands of years before, and died, and gone, and what good had it done?

For the world warred on and pain was a thief in the night that no soul could escape and the child did not halt the breaking of the earth. The empty manger gaped up at Eric. The holy child was missing from his heart. Eric’s brother, the only family left to him was missing, a soldier lost in battle. And now Eric’s faith was missing too, as if it had gone in search of the others. His trust in God had always been the simple one of boyhood, a marveling at the beauty of the world, a giddy sort of joy that knew someone must be thanked for the splendor of it all. But there was nothing left to marvel at anymore.

“Come, Lord Jesus,” he whispered, as if to test the words one last time, “come and save us.” But not a breath of response stirred about him, even in the secret places of his heart. Feeling fully adult for the first time in his life, old, creaky in all his bones and stiff in his skin, he rose and forced himself to an almost militant stance.

They would soon come, all the old, faithful dons and their polite, grey-haired wives with saintly faces, and the choir boys whom not even war could scare into solemnity, and the few (very few) students more intent upon choir songs than pub tunes and another pint. He must play a grand charade for them tonight. Let them keep their faith as long as they could, and he his good position. Ellie, his wife, would be there too, slim and pale and looking a little too transparent for his comfort. He could not set the sorrow of his disbelief in her hands for there was a burning, heavy lump of it there already that set the navy tint of grief at back of her eyes even when she smiled.

She met him now, at the wide arch that led into the freezing narthex where the choirboys gathered and a few candles shivered in the dark. How sword-straight she stood, with her neat, dark hair pulled back and her face paled by sorrow. Her beauty had never been the kind to shout at one. Her bearing was so quiet, her hands so calm that most people passed her by before they had time to glimpse the great brightness of her eyes and the smile that came like the rising of the morning. She was like his angels in the rafters, a secret glory. He could not bear to lose her too. She reached out a gloved hand to him and he bent to kiss her cheek so that she would not read the thoughts in his eyes.

“Ready darling?” she asked, pulling his robes straight, “did you snatch a few good moments of prayer before Jonas showed up?” Her eyes were playful even in their quiet, her hands gentle, and he was grateful for laughter to cover his face as a mask.

“Yes indeed, though I think he chased a few more mice than usual, it was quite the racket, ah – there’s David, I must speak to him about the anthem,” and he left her quickly. “I’ll see you after service,” he called back over his shoulder, watching her take her place in the high pew under the south window, its stained glass gleaming with the gold of wheat piles and the ruddy face of the diligent Ruth. Ellie always sat there, insisting that Ruth, the steady worker, kept her mind from wandering quite so much.

She was never meant to be the prim wife of a college chaplain. His Ellie was like a living flame in the wind, a presence ever alight with the brightness of her own impassioned thought, her quiet, burning love of all things beautiful, of art and song and dance. She was a London girl, a writer’s daughter, raised in the vivid company of dreamer’s and artists until she married him. But then, he had never thought of himself as a staid and solemn priest. They both thought it a great, divine joke when he was installed in a position of such grown-up solemnity.

At first, his laughter, his childlike sight of little wonders, and her fire had made his work, and their tiny home of stone and ivy within the college walls feel like a fresh story told at the end of an ancient tale. Life was a grand drama to Ellie and she told her own vivid imagination into the chapel world. In the ancient silence, she heard the echoes of prayers and the cries of babies baptized and the sighs of lovers wed, and she wove it into a living story for him. And of course, back then he could still catch the angels at their games.

Now, as the choirboys gathered in rows and the choirmaster scolded until they were halfway straight, he took his place near the end of the procession, under the garish gold cross on its pole that always looked ready to crash upon the heads of the people below it. Perhaps, he mused, grief had finally made adults of him and Ellie both. She held silence to her now as if it was the child she had lost, and though she loved him, she could not lay it down and be glad. Well, no more could he. Life had finally made them the upright, solemn church couple they ought to be. Eric took a last glance up into the dark rafters. The angels were stone faced. He tucked his chin into his collar and shuffled ahead behind the choir.

As the first hymn played, the congregation stood in a swish and rustle that filled the chapel with whispers. They shivered as they sang and drew a little nearer their seatmates. Usually they did not notice the chill. The starlight of the stained glass and the soaring of the music wove a circle about them that shut all worry away. But that night the music seemed thin and the light weak. The cold came at them like an invader, staining the air and battering them where they stood so that they felt accosted by a force much larger than themselves. Father Eric, whose ecclesiastical jollity and badly hidden mid-service grins at his wife usually provoked such pleasant gossip, looked grim and grey as the oldest man among them. He sang the prayers in a cold, harsh echo that startled rather than solaced them.

Perhaps it was to be expected. It was the war, they supposed. The news was worse of late, the bombs in London heavier. They glanced up as the service progressed; the flames of the candles battled the darkness and the shadows leapt above them in a grotesque dance. They felt very small. The eyes of the angels in the windows looked shifty and the stone saints seemed very, very cold. They simply could not concentrate, and when the mischievous choirboys settled down to the anthem, their eyes wandered off uneasily into the shadows crouched in the high corners. They fidgeted and buttoned their coats and paid almost no attention to the ending of the service until Father Eric’s voice rang out in the last prayers:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee O Lord, and by Thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…

A few of the women jerked a curious glance in his direction, wondering if – heaven forbid – their chaplain had tears in his eyes. This was unheard of, but the grating unsteadiness of his tone made them suspicious. There was, of course, the awful news about his brother to be considered, and that disappointment with the baby a few months back, but priests were expected to leave their personal complaints at home. A glance at Father Eric’s stony face reassured them and they dropped their eyes in relief. The minute the service ended, they hurried out of the chapel into the night. The bitter cold of the open sky was a relief.

But one small person looked back over his shoulder and dragged his feet as he went. The tall, gaunt-faced woman beside him jerked his hand so that he winced and hurried his steps. But he did not turn his gaze from the long, dim nave. The candlelit shadows had encircled him like the strong, sweet arms of the mother he barely remembered. For a few rare moments, he had forgotten to be afraid. And there were voices; the church echoed with lively whispers that set his eyes darting up and round and through the darkling corners. The candlelight glinted off the faces of the saints like a merry wink, and the music still seemed to leap and sing and echo in the shadows.

The woman gave a final, exasperated jerk of his arm. A great sigh escaped him and he glanced back for the last time. He gasped. The angel in the rafters just above him had waved its wing and winked.