The Baby Jesus Comes Home
Anyone who ever lived in our town has heard of the Boatwrights and knows their story and how the baby Jesus came to live with them. It is a story that has been told and retold so many times over the years and always around Christmas.
Lazarus and Esther Boatwright made their home just outside of town where the smooth streets running by nice homes turn gravelly, and streets lights are few and shine only when they want to. And though most of those lights don’t work, the city people still hang a light up candy cane or reindeer or Santa Claus on them even though they’re not supposed to. It’s always a left over decoration, usually broken, and couldn’t be used. No one complains, and that way the Boatwright children, especially Jesse Boatwright, could get at least a glimpse of Christmas from the sagging porch of their rusted roof shack.
Jesse was the oldest of the three Boatwright children, but in some ways he was the youngest; for though his body grew, his mind didn’t. Some say this is why Lazarus Boatwright drank so much and could never hold down a job for more than a pay day or two and some say this is why Esther Boatwright thin and frail worked three jobs and even took in ironing at Smitty’s Cleaners with hands worked to the bone.
In the end despite his drinking, meanness, and lowdown sorry ways, Esther still loved Lazarus with a heart people around town said was too forgiving, and Lazarus told her that he loved her too. He told her he would quit drinking too and hanging around Floyd’s pool room.
This is something she believed for many years, though everyone else tried to tell her different, everyone but Jesse who believed, too. After a while it was just him and her waiting for the staggering footfalls of Lazarus on the porch and the smell of whiskey and cigar smoke which followed him home from Floyd’s.
The other children, tired of wearing double hand me downs and doing without, had long since escaped their miserable childhood. Still a child inside, Jesse wasn’t so lucky, but he didn’t mind and loved his father as much as his mother did, never seeing the disappointment in the eyes of Lazarus when he sobered up.
Love does conquer all and in the end it was Jesse’s love that changed things for good. It wasn’t just Jesse’s love for his father, even though that did help. It was Jesse’s love for Jesus, the baby Jesus, and particular the baby Jesus which lay in the manger of the First United Church’s nativity scene.
For more years than anyone could remember, the old nativity scene watched over the winter browned church house lawn of the First United from just before Thanksgiving until sometimes almost Valentine’s day.
The silver haired members of the First United Church were big on tradition and they didn’t mind seeing Mary and Joseph and the three wise men weather the winter chill. It was for this reason, that the whole town went into a panic upon discovering that the cradle was empty the first Sunday of December when the choir gathered round it to practice Handle’s Messiah.
It was just before Sunday school and no, “Hallelujahs,” echoed across the church yard that morning, only panicked whispers joined with suspicious glances. Gone was the baby Jesus, who for years looked up a them from the wooden box their grandfathers built with real wood and real nails and filled with real hay. Gone were the swaddling clothes too. The hay was still there though, untouched and covered in leaves from the nearby oak as it undressed for winter. From the looks of things, the baby Jesus had been gone for quite sometime – kidnapped.
After a while of speculating, the police chief came and went siren wailing and blue lights flashing. The congregation, most of which gathered about the manger, went inside out of the cold; all but Jesse Boatwright who had some how slipped away from his mother. Esther and Jesse never ever missed a church service, always sitting on the back pew so no one would notice them or their worn-out clothes.
Jesse was gone, and not knowing what to do, Esther told no one as she sat amidst the buzzing whispers over the missing baby Jesus which filled the sanctuary as the choir took its place. Finally after saying a prayer as the choir sang the second verse of, “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” heart racing and eyes filled with fear, she slipped out of the service through the side door. It was the one she and Jesse used to avoid the hugging and handshake line and the pitiful stares.
She hoped she would find Jesse sitting on the steps like he sometimes did while she talked to her Aunt Gladys after the service. He wasn’t there though, and this made her heart drop even more, just like when she lost him at the Piggly Wiggly when he was a little boy.
She had a bad feeling, with the baby Jesus gone and Jesse no where to be found. As he whispered another prayer she hurried toward home, walking as fast as she could, buttoning her coat as she went and hoping no one saw her leave. This wouldn’t be the first time Jesse took something that didn’t belong to him.
Someone did see her leave , Otis Wiggleworth, the town manager and remembering how Jesse gathered up the ducks at the city pond and tried to make them pets, he headed straight for the telephone. In no time the sound of the police chief’s siren could be heard over the “Old Rugged Cross.” By then, everyone knew where the black and white with blue lights flashing was headed….the Boatwright’s, and in a hurry.
After the benediction, the church emptied out into the cold December breeze; relief spilled over the congregation as everyone paraded past the manger where they smiled back at the baby Jesus, who looked up at them safe and sound and as happy as they remembered.
He wore his swaddling clothes too, and they were bright white, freshly washed and ironed. It was something Esther Boatwright insisted on out of sad embarrassment. She and the chief found Jesse under the house holding the baby Jesus. They were near the place where Lazarus always went to sleep off his drunks when Esther locked him out of the house. The sad thing was that Lazarus was there, reeking of whiskey and helping Jesse sing, “Jesus Loves Me,” as the boy cradled the little doll safely in his arms.
No harm was done, no charges were filed, and the preacher stopped by to thank Esther for the new swaddling clothes. He even brought her and Lazarus and Jesse one of his wife’s pecan pies. Esther washed and ironed for them, and he promised to smooth things out with his congregation. Esther and Jesse were still welcomed at the church and Lazarus too, who by this time crawled out from under the porch.
Jesse’s little stunt even got him a part in the Christmas play, which tickled Jesse to no end. It wasn’t a speaking part, shepherds never talk, but it was a part, and something he could manage.
A week later when the baby Jesus disappeared again, the sound of the police chief’s siren could be heard once more. Only this time, it screamed out at night after Otis Goforth, the head deacon who unplugged the nativity scene’s spotlight each night, reported the abduction of the Christ child.
Through their curtains, the whole town watched the blue light of the squad car flicker from where it sat parked, motor running in front of the Boatwright house, while the telephone wires hummed with rumors.
This had to stop, and it had to stop now. The baby Jesus was part of the Nativity scene, and he had to stay put, or it would mess everything up. Everyone, knowing that Jesse Boatwright meant no harm, agreed. Even Esther, who with sad embarrassment this time dressed the baby Jesus in trousers and shirt and even a little coat Jesse insisted on him wearing before he climbed out of the apple tree with the baby in hand.
That is where the chief and Esther found him holding little Jesus and singing “Away in a Manger.”
Not drunk this time, Lazarus threatened to beat Jesse, but the police chief talked him out of it. The boy only wanted the baby Jesus to be warm and safe and not alone in the cold dark night. He didn’t understand. Lazarus agreed, putting his belt back on.
With some convincing, the people at the church agreed to let the baby Jesus wear clothes, which Otis Goforth volunteered to put on the little doll every night when he outed the flood light. If this meant Jesse Boatwright stopped sneaking out of his house, and running off with the baby Jesus, Otis said he would be glad to help. Sirens and blue lights were waking up the old folks and his hound dogs, too.
So, it was settled; the baby Jesus would wear swaddling clothes by day and dungarees and a flannel shirt by night, and a winter coat, and gloves and socks and boots, and a hat Esther knitted just for him.
Childlike as he was, Jesse was a fierce negotiator and he stayed content until an early snow turned the whole world white, including the nativity scene, Mary, Joseph, the wise men and most of all the baby Jesus.
With all the snow, no one noticed the missing baby on their way into church; no one but Esther now understanding why Jesse begged to stay home and wait for his father to stagger up the back steps and pass out on the porch. Jesse was right, Lazarus might freeze to death, so she agreed. His father wasn’t the only one Jesse was worried about freezing. Since no one noticed before the service, she prayed she could get home and get the baby back, right after the altar call. She didn’t.
On the third verse of “Just As I Am,” the church doors swung open and in walked Lazarus eyes pouring tears and reeking of whiskey and cigarette smoke left over from the night before. Cradled in his arms was the baby Jesus. Already standing, the entire congregation watched the most wretched man they knew, make his way to the altar that Sunday morning; all the while still holding the baby Jesus dressed like a lumberjack.
Lazarus never said what brought him to the altar to beg for forgiveness and repent that Sunday morning, a week before Christmas. Jesse never said either. He followed his father to the altar that morning and held the baby while his daddy hugged his mama and they cried together. Then the whole church swarmed around them and “Amazing Grace” could be heard for miles as it spilled out into the December wind on its way to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, who watched down from Heaven.
So now if you are ever passing through our town, around Christmas, and swing by the First United Church to take a look at the Nativity scene, you will understand why the manger is empty and Mary and Joseph are still smiling. They like everyone at the First United Church know that because there was no room in the inn all those years ago, doesn’t mean there is no room in the inn nowadays. And Jesus belongs in our homes and in our hearts, like Jesse, in his child like way, reminded the church that morning before everyone shouted, “Amen.”
This is a work of fiction dedicated to the Jesses of the world, who in their own special and childlike way remind us of things we too often forget. – Edward Reed 2019