Lucy had looked for years in antique shops, at estate sales, and lately on eBay, but to no avail. Then one evening, early in the December of her thirty-first year, she saw it on her laptop screen, a nativity set like the one her father placed out every year when she was a girl. The story was that as a boy he spied it in a store window and was simply swept away. His family was not necessarily religious, yet they were not not-religious either. They fell, like so many, somewhere in between. Her father would smile and say, “My parents’ faith was nominal, Lucy, as in small. But so are mustard seeds.” But on that particular day in his boyhood there was something about the painted ceramic characters surrounding Christ’s birth that charmed him. He especially liked the angel on top holding the banner that read Gloria. So he pooled his earnings from mowing grass and purchased the manger scene. The austere collection continued on into Lucy’s childhood. Every December, for as far back as her memories held, she and her father would place each piece on a red velvet runner on the small table at the end of the hall. During the Christmas season Lucy could see just the top of it from her bed, the stable’s gable where the winged angel hovered with her tiding. That was often the very last thing she focused on before falling asleep, a seed small enough for her dreams. Gloria.
But every Eden has a serpent. Lucy’s father fell over dead while mowing the grass one summer afternoon. She was fifteen, and on that day her heart swelled into a million sorrows. Like the old fairy tales, in the wake of such tragedy her mother married a new man who had his own things and traditions and ideas, and the tiny crèche bought by a boy was not among them. At first she thought it was stored away somewhere in the attic, but she grew convinced the new man had thrown it away, one of his many acts to mark territory. In her grief and desperation to be taken care of, her mother did not resist these acts. She would say, “We’ve got to learn to get along, Lucy.”
Lucy got along until she could get away. Then she did. She attended college clear across the country, followed by studies abroad in France and Germany, and then graduate school. Next a whirlwind marriage to a man that reminded her of her father. But it turned out he was yet another man determined to mark and rule his territory, that primarily being Lucy, and she would have none of it. So almost a year to the day he said, “I do,” he drove away in search of more compliant pastures. Lucy’s college offered her a coveted teaching position. She accepted and settled into an academic rhythm that almost satisfied her. In what was surely a lifetime but seemed a blink, Lucy found herself a thirty-one-year-old divorced professor of religious history at a private school on the west coast with a faith more her grandfather’s than her father’s. Her belief felt nominal, as in small.
She knew the search to find that old nativity set bordered on magical thinking, as if finding it might mend something in her. Yet if her study of religion had taught her anything, it was that both the wise and the foolish had undertaken such quests to search long and hard to hold some small relic from yesterday in hopes it might stir like the diviner’s rod. And so this grown woman clicked the “Buy it now” button and waited for a nativity set to arrive, one like what had once swept away her father when he was but a boy. Yes, she was onto something, and like the quote she loved said, “Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
“Is everything okay?” The UPS man noticed tears in her eyes when he handed her the package. “Yes,” Lucy said, “it’s just, I’ve just been waiting for this. You’re kind to ask.” Lucy watched him drive away in the gathering dusk, that very golden time of day. She found herself in that all too common place where the faith was about to be made sight, and she was afraid, afraid the contents of the box would not live up to her hopes. She’d experimented living with low expectations, as some people swear by. But Lucy found that a rather paltry way to live. No, there’d be no way to know unless she took a look. She had to get on with it.
The opened box revealed the scent of cedar. First she removed the crèche itself. It was just as she remembered, used and worn but in passable shape. Then there they were, the figures from her Christmases past, smaller now but such is the reality when you’re older. She took them one by one from the box—the wide-eyed shepherd with the lamb piggybacked across his shoulders, the two sheep with mouths agape, Mary and Joseph both with hands clenched to their chests and downcast eyes focused on the Christ-child awake in the hay. And then Lucy found it hard to breathe for there were the golden wings and open arms of the most beautiful angel she’d ever seen. She cradled the herald in her hands like one might a robin’s egg. There, in a faded script, on a banner draped across her angelic knees was the core of Lucy’s once-upon-a-time dreams, that mustard-seed-like word, Gloria.
No choirs of angels filled the skies that mid-December evening. No unmistakable star blazed in the East. There was nothing of that magnitude. But there was a kind man who had traveled a distance to deliver to Lucy a gift like those of the Magi. That night, as the stars began to bloom, a thirty-one-year-old divorced professor of religious history sat before a nominal, as in small, nativity set that some might say had seen better days and found herself swept away in a gloria of memory riddled with grief and happiness and sorrow and love—and hope. It is funny how sometimes the smallest things are, like grace, sufficient. And it is splendid how every now and then, the nominal things are something even more.
Cover image by Walter Chavez.