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A Christmas Memory from Author Walter Wangerin Jr.

In The Manger Is Empty, Walter Wangerin Jr. shares personal memories from past Christmases. In a chapter entitled "A Quiet Chamber," he recalls Christmas, 1944. That year, in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, Walter's father did the same thing he always did at Christmastime: he went into a room in the house, removed the outside door knob so the kids couldn't get in, and he decorated a Christmas tree and stacked presents all around it.

As their father carried on the great tradition, the Wangerin kids did the same thing they always did at Christmastime: they stood outside the door, dreaming about what awaited them come Christmas morning.

That is, every child except Walter.

Having turned ten in 1944, Wangerin writes: "I had that very year become an adult: silent, solemn, watchful, and infinitely cautious." While his brothers and sisters could barely contain their excitement, Wangerin held himself in "severe restraint." Why? The Christmas before, Walter had watched a rather traumatic moment unfold. For reasons no one was ever able to identify, Walter's brother, Paul, had burst into tears. Paul's deep sadness left an indelible mark on Walter, who writes: "I was shocked to discover that the Christmas time was not inviolate. I was horrified that pain could invade the holy ceremony. And I was angry that my father had not protected my brother from tears." Walter adds: "Besides—what if you hope and it doesn't happen? It's treacherous to hope. The harder you hope, the more vulnerable you become." With all of that in mind, Walter decided he was not going to make himself vulnerable like before. He was not going to hope. He was not going to be caught off guard by whatever might happen when his father opened the door on Christmas Eve.

When the time had finally come for the tradition to meet its climax, Walter stood beside his anxious brothers and sisters—the only one with a frown. Walter's father opened the door to the room, and all the Wangerin kids ran in, gasping and giggling over what they saw.

That is, every child except Walter.

Walter stood in the doorway, gazing at the tree and the piles of presents. Then he turned to look at his father who stood there waiting. What he saw caused Walter to have an emotional outburst of his own that Christmas Eve—one that was quite unlike Paul's from the year before. He writes:

There … was my father, standing center in the room and gazing straight at me. … And this is the wonder fixed in my memory: that the man himself was filled with a yearning, painful expectation—on account of me.
Everything else in this room was just as it had been the year before, and the year before that. But this was new. This thing I had never seen before: that my father, too, had had to trust the promises against their disappointments. So said his steady eyes on me. But among the promises to which my father had committed his soul, his hope, and his faith, the most important one was this: that his eldest son should soften and be glad. …
He gazed at me, waiting, waiting, for me, waiting for his Christmas to be received by his son and returned to him again.
And I began to cry. O my father!
Silently, merely spilling tears and staring straight back at him, defenseless because there was no need for defenses. I cried—glad and unashamed. Because, what was this room, for so long locked, which I was entering? Why, it was my own heart. And why had I been afraid? Because I thought I'd find it empty, a hard unfeeling thing.
But there, in the room, was my father.
And there, in my father, was the love that had furnished this room, preparing it for us no differently than he had last year prepared it, yet trusting and yearning, desiring our joy.
And what else could such a love be, but my Jesus drawing near?
Look, then, what I have found in my father's room, in my heart after all: the dearest Lord Jesus, hold child—
The nativity of our Lord.
I leaned my cheek against the doorjamb and grinned like a grown-up ten years old, and sobbed as if I were two. And my father moved from the middle of the room and walked toward me, still empty-handed; but he spread his hands and gathered me to himself. And I put my arms around his harder body. And so we, both of us, were full.

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