The Wondrous Gift: A Story of Healing and Hope

by | Dec 23, 2023 | beauty, courage, faith, grace, healing, love

(This is a true story of my lived experience. Some names and details have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.)

I found the vintage nativity set wrapped in newspaper, packed in just one cardboard box among many at a garage sale in a McMansion community close to my home. The fifty-something man told me it was the work of years by his parents, the collection taking form a piece at a time via travels through Germany, France, and Italy. That was all the backstory I received, as twenty dollars passed to his hand, and the box passed into mine. 

As I unwrapped each piece in Advent 2019, my mind turned to their journey to my home and how each mute figure held a story. The shepherds — how did they come to join this band of worshippers around the baby Jesus? What was the path of the bowing king, what miles did he travel to find his way to this collection? How many seasons passed until all the figures were present and the scene was complete?

King and shepherd figurines

“There is a time for everything, and a season for each purpose…”

In my time in ministry as a spiritual director, the stories of others become a part of how I share the journey with Jesus’s church, what St. Paul called the Body of Christ. In holding the stories, directors take vows to hold hope for those we companion with through the seasons of their lives. I vow to hold hope that there is a purpose to each season. I also trust that while not everything is a gift, there is gift in everything. God holds the gift out to us in courteous invitation, and gives us the choice whether to receive it. 

The same hope and trust I hold for others God invites me to embrace for myself. For naturally, if I did not experience the reality of these two statements in my own life, the hope and trust would be shallow and speculative. So as I began Advent 2019, God invited me on a little journey, a practicum on hope and trust, that started with a noticing.

“There is a time to search” for the object of our desire.

God knows I love and notice metaphor. As I gazed at the nativity, I noticed that Jesus was larger than the other figures in scale. And while I do warm to the metaphorical meaning of a Jesus who one day will be seen by us, large and majestic, clothed in great glory, my artist’s eye noticed the material inconsistency. My heart also longed to see baby Jesus as One who became like one of us, the divine yet very human Jesus, born in a lowly stable.

Photo of Mary and Jesus figurine

Two years of intermittent scouring of second hand shops, antique stores, and online markets followed. I held hope that one day, one moment, I would see the right figure to complete the nativity. With delight I finally found the baby Jesus that seemed to be correctly sized. An online auction of a solitary baby Jesus with elegant sculpting of painted clay, wrapped in swaddling linen and laid in a manger. He was perfect, except for a little chip off the nose, which I was confident I could patch and paint to restore the figure to full beauty. 

Photo of Jesus figure from auction site

I made the easy digital exchange and began the expectant waiting process in mid-Advent of 2021. I hoped the Jesus figure would arrive by his birthday, a gift to our home.  

Two days before Christmas I received a message from Emily, the seller, that Jesus had gone missing. With apologies, she refunded my payment and would message me if they found the figure.  My waiting was now woven together with uncertainty and disappointment, and a bit of hope that the figure would be found.

It seems those asked to be part of God’s plan for redemption did a lot of waiting, too. Mary, waiting the normal nine months, until she was “great with child” on the road to Bethlehem. Elizabeth, waiting decades until all hope seemed lost, then becoming pregnant. Zechariah, waiting in silence for the birth of his son. Simeon, waiting for the promised Messiah. 

In my practice I frequently companion with those who are waiting. Waiting for joy to return after loss, for hope to rise up after disappointment, for faith to rekindle, sometimes just for an end to the waiting. When I read a favorite poem, John O’Donohue’s For The Interim Time, and I come to the phrase, “when everything seems withheld,” my heart tightens in empathy. I too, have endured waiting in my life. 

Now I waited, but with not much hope, so I also kept looking, less enthusiastically, I must admit. A few weeks later my hope rekindled when Emily wrote to say that she found the figure and would send it to me at no cost, thankful for my forbearance. So another metaphor, coming in the free gift of Jesus during the time of Epiphany, the time of revealing of the Messiah to the Gentiles. I thanked her most kindly and proceeded to wait again, with happy expectation.

“There is a time to mourn,” because sometimes what we receive is not what we hope for. 

When I opened the mailbox door, my heart sank, as the box I lifted from the darkness was so clearly crushed while on its journey to me. I held a tiny shred of hope that Jesus was intact, but that hope was extinguished entirely when I opened the box and unwrapped the bubble wrap that held a handful of shards. The clay, being greenware and unfired, was particularly fragile, and it broke me to see the fair figure so utterly destroyed. I replaced the bundle in its box and laid it in the glove compartment of our SUV. I couldn’t bear to look at it, and I couldn’t bear to let it go.

Broken pieces of Jesus figurine

“There is a time to hold,” because letting go seems to mean letting go of all hope.

“Jesus in 100 pieces,” as I called it, remained in the glove compartment as winter turned to spring. Somehow I couldn’t throw the shards away, but I couldn’t imagine any other end for this icon of tragedy. Jesus, in all his courteousness, as sister Julian of Norwich would put it, waited with me and for me. 

“There is a time to mend,” because in the mending we find meaning, hope, and healing.

Midway through Lent of 2022, God reminded me of my metaphor in the glove compartment. It was time, He said, to put Jesus back together. God also knows I dearly love a challenge. But I looked at the broken Jesus again and wondered, this time, if I could really mend this catastrophe. My hope was weak and uncertain. I didn’t know where to start the process, so I began as I often do, with research. Glue, but what kind? White. How? A piece at a time, a step at a time. So I began, laying out the pieces and beginning to mend, piece by piece. The result was a figure that barely held its shape, but it was beginning to look a bit like a baby. 

Broken pieces of Jesus figurine on tissue paper
Jesus figurine glued together

“There is a time to fortify,” because it reminds us that God’s strength unfolds and finds complete expression in our weakness.

I left the Babe on the buffet in our living room while I struggled with the challenge of making him more resilient and supporting the weak structure of clay and white glue. One day early in the summer of 2022 I came upon the idea of pouring something inside the hollow form. It had to be a substance that would not shrink or expand as it cured, as shifts in either direction would spell disaster for the figure. So research again, and I found plaster of Paris was my best option. I mixed, poured, waited again, and held in my hands a heavier and stronger Jesus. 

Next came patching cracks and the original stubbed nose with putty, sanding and smoothing as best I could. It was clear that I couldn’t easily match the original paint, so I opted to start from a clean canvas. I chose the foundation of gold gesso, a metaphorical acknowledgement of the incarnation of God the Son. As I painted the figure and Jesus glowed, I had high hopes for the completion of my project. 

Jesus figuring with gold gesso

I’ve met with a small group since 2017 each Thursday morning. We often bring in our creative work to show and share. One Thursday during Advent 2022 I brought my work-in-progress and unfolded its journey up until then. The reception was mixed and there were more questions than affirmations. Was it wise for me to do anything other than to throw the broken Jesus away? Why would you take on such a hopeless project? What courage caused you to start? My hope faded with every shake of the head, every sigh. Maybe this was an idiotic undertaking. After all, I could never make it the same as it was. 

“There is a time to be still,” because in stillness we can hear the gentle whisper of God.

The Jesus figure returned to the buffet, and remained there through 2023’s spring and summer. I would look upon the gilded form and again, felt God’s patience with me, even an invitation, to just allow myself to be still in the process. In the quiet the Holy Spirit revealed my own needed healing as an artist who compared her work to others with merciless self-criticism. The season unfolded with reflection, revelation, and growing assurance of being both gifted and loved by my Creator God. While I had (and have) more journeying ahead, hope returned, that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” (Emily Dickinson)

One day in early fall of 2023 I gazed upon the golden babe again — with that long, loving gaze we who have a contemplative disposition and calling work to cultivate. As my golden Jesus lay in front of me, I thought of how well Jesus lived his life, that “though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.” (Phil. 2:6) He carried pure and precious divinity within his body of flesh. Jesus himself referred to his own humble state as the Son of Man, who came to seek and save the lost. 

I knew this season was the “fullness of time” for baby Jesus. God was inviting me to return to the work, for the last time — to paint the manger, the linen, and ultimately, the body and face of Jesus.

Again I researched. First I looked at the original face of the figure. I felt dissatisfied with it. Jesus seemed to have an “above it all” visage, not one who could be “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” I wanted to see in the Babe the face of the loving Savior that was present with those I accompanied in spiritual companionship and gather with each Sunday. I returned to research, studying how other artists and photographers had captured the face of babies, particularly babies with the similar genetic DNA as the historic Jesus. I found a few that struck a chord with my soul, and they became my guides for the next part of the journey.

I unpacked my paints and fine brushes, set up a work area at the kitchen table, and worked slowly in stages and phases of painting, drying, waiting, gazing, evaluating and retouching. Finally the face shape beneath my hand took on character, the folds of cloth reappeared, and the manger became more real.

“There is a time for love,” because our Creator God is love. We were made from love and for love.

One of the hardest parts in creating is knowing when to stop. I always feel the temptation to return to the work, see if it requires something more, and sometimes add what I later regret. I am getting better at this, and while I did return a few times with the Jesus figure, after one final check I knew it was truly and finally done. I could say it pleased me, just as it was, and nothing I could add was needed. I sealed the paint for the last time. 

I pondered this journey, and cast another long, loving gaze upon the finished child, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The Father again invited me to notice the metaphor and meaning of the broken and healed Jesus figurine.

“There is a time to heal,” and find the gift in the mending of what is broken.

Like most journeys, we walk our own healing path without knowing how it will unfold, but learning to trust more fully the Lover of our souls. The path winds and dips and some seasons seem to take their excruciating time to pass into another, kinder season. Sometimes we are heart-sick as hope is deferred, yet again. Sometimes we lose hope, but God and others continue to hold hope for us. Sometimes unhoped for joys and gifts show up, just when we need them. When we look back, if we receive at least some of the gift God intends for us, we conclude, “I wouldn’t trade that journey for anything” as we also admit, “I’d never want to go through it again.”

The process not only brings healing, it leaves us transfigured, if we allow the Father to do the work. In surrendering, as Mary said, “May it be” and Jesus said, “Not my will,” we agree to let go of what is less than the “very good” the Father offers. It is sometimes a choice made with tiny mustard-seed sized faith, but as Gerald May says, “the purest faith is enacted when all we can choose is to relax our hands or clench them, to turn wordlessly toward or away from God.” This tiny choice is part of the process of being conformed more into the image of his dear Son, the One who lived most truly into what it means to be human. 

My Jesus figure, as it sits within the nativity, is different from the one I expected and is vastly different from the one I received. I look into this Jesus’s face —  broken, mended, tended and in time, healed. The figure still bears a few scars if you look closely. Its healing spanned many seasons as I did the slow and imperfect work of putting back together what was broken. It reminds me of God’s patient love with me and all humanity, the love that always hopes, always perseveres, and never ends. 

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is given…”

I look at my figure placed among the others and I notice one more thing. In painting this figure, I portrayed Jesus as more real looking, more human, than the rest of the figures around the manger. I look on this final metaphor, and am content. In fact, it delights me and gives me hope.

Nativity Scene

Merry Christmas

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