One day after work when I was stoned and she was four I took her to Rockefeller Center to see the biggest Christmas Tree in the world! The dazzle on her face justified the ordeal. When we popped out of the crowd onto 52nd Street we headed east towards Park Avenue to catch a cab. Passing the side entrance to St. Patrick’s Cathedral I fell upon the idea to introduce her to her Catholic heritage and maybe stay the ghostly slap on the back of my head that her sainted great-grandmother delivers every time we walk past a church. She won’t leave me be.
I thought, Okay, Grandma. Let’s take her into St. Patty’s! and somewhere high in Heaven, Maggie McCabe smiled.
“It’s like a church,” I told Dylan, “a very big church.” She had never been inside a cathedral before, and as we walked through the vestibule and into the cavern of carved white stone and sudden silence, the palpable hush in the expansive room compelled my daughter to whisper:
The side entrance led us straight to the most celebrated crèche in the world. St. Patrick’s legendary Christmas manger is almost life size and comes complete with animals, wise men, an angel, shepherds, Joseph and Mary…. but it was a week before Christmas, and the guest of honor had yet to arrive.
“You see all this, Dylan?” I waved my hand across the cathedral’s vast interior. “This whole church is about one idea, right here, ths manger! All these people praying?” – The cathedral was filled with holiday visitors – “Every one of them believes that the baby Jesus was born in a place just like this a long time ago. You see the animals and the people gathered around the crib? That’s where they’ll put a little doll of the baby Jesus at midnight on Christmas Eve!” I sing-songed, “Joy to the world/ The Lord is come…”
“Baby Jesus!” she said, grasping the concept for the first time.
“That’s right. Jesus Christ. That’s where the word Christmas comes from. It’s a birthday celebration for the baby, Jesus Christ.”
“Baby Jesus!” she repeated, warming up to the idea.
“Now, I think that’s just a story, but a lot of people think it’s true. They think the baby Jesus was God’s gift to the world… Just like you were God’s gift to me and mommy.”
“Your grandmother believed it, and your great-grandmother believed it, and you know my friend, Reverend Wright?” She nodded. “He really believes it, and he talks about it all the time. I don’t believe it, but this is what my mother and my grandmother told me. I think it’s a very beautiful story but that’s all. I think Jesus was a very good man – but a lot of people we know think he was the Son of God. That’s okay too.”
I told her about Mary and Joseph; about how there was no room at the inn, and that’s why the animals were gathered ’round. I told her about the Star of Bethlehem and the gifts of the Magi. “That’s where we get Christmas presents from.”
“I thought we got Christmas presents from Santa,” she countered.
“That came later,” I said. “The Magi is what is what gave Santa the idea in the first place. You know, ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ I slipped a little Handel in for good measure.
Entering St. Pat’s for the very first time is literally breathtaking for a four-year-old girl. The vaulted roof soars two hundred feet off the ground seemingly suspended on nothing but air. The interior is an ostentation of detail, of angular marbles and polished blocks, peopled by fluid statues of sinners and saints. Colored lights filtered gently through a forest of stained glass windows. This was the kind of stuff that really pissed off Martin Luther.
We walked along the north transept following a waist-high communion rail towards the center of the nave. At the cathedral’s midpoint we faced the altar on our left, and I taught her how to genuflect on one knee while making the Sign of the Cross. An ornate brass canopy stretched sixty feet above the floor and encompassed the massive marble altar and its large crucifix made of gold. The figure on the cross wore a loincloth and a crown of thorns and was writhing in pain. My daughter made a face and said, “Who’s that?”
I couldn’t help it. Marijuana makes me glib. The words came pouring out of my mouth faster than my mind could filter:
“Well,” I cracked, “It didn’t really work out well for the Baby Jesus…”
Her eyes grew impossibly large…
“No! No! No! No!” I quickly recanted. “That’s not what I meant.” Shooting from the hip, I stammered a little scripture – “And God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” No! No! No! I stopped myself. That’s not it either! Yikes! And then searching for something not stupid to say – mirabele’ dictu! – I lit upon the miracle of the Resurrection.
“You see, Dill, Jesus tried to fix all the bad things in the world. That’s hard to do and he died trying, but…” I raised a finger triumphantly. “He’s the Son of God, right? Out of everyone who has ever lived, in the whole world, he’s the only one who ever came back to life!
“How ’bout that? The Resurrection!” I declared. “That’s what Easter’s about! Christmas is about the birth of baby Jesus and Easter is about …coming back.”
She gave me a sidelong glance that said, Are you kidding me?
“The only one.” I babbled. “Back to life… That’s the story… It’s a miracle,” I said weakly. “You know, ‘Hallelujah!’”
“What about ghosts?” she said.
“Ghosts? Yeah. Well, that’s something different. There’s lots of ghosts but there’s only one Jesus….
“It’s a beautiful story,” I insisted. Dylan was dubious.
Marijuana turned out to be a lot easier to explain than Catholicism.
And somewhere in heaven Maggie McCabe laughed.