Michael at the Manger

I’m the catechist for the second graders in the Religious Ed. program at my parish, and among my charges this year is a boy named Michael. As with any teacher these days, I’m always on the lookout for—or am informed beforehand of—any students who may have special needs. In this case, the director of the program had told me before the first class that Michael was “definitely on the spectrum”, which, per the term, can range from the relatively mild communication and social distortions of Asperger’s syndrome to the severe dissociations of autism. Michael is, by the grace of God, on the lower end of the spectrum, most immediately noticeable by a certain disconnect apparent in even the most ordinary social interactions, an organic interiority that, if it hadn’t been defined as a pathology, might also be called a prayer state, even contemplation. He is, in his own way, a monk.

Another marker of this end of the spectrum is an obsessional focus on certain topics. Years ago with another spectrum kid, when, with five minutes free at the end of class, I handed out art paper and told the class they could draw whatever they wanted, he took out his crayons and drew me the map of the entire New York City subway system. With Michael it’s time and, to some degree space—outer space, specifically. When we were doing the creation story, he became obsessed with figuring out which day was the Big Bang. I suggested Day 1, but he really wanted it to come after Adam and Eve. When I pointed out the logical (and scriptural) difficulties this would pose, he finally settled on Day 4. When I was telling the story of the Three Wise Men, he suggested that the star they followed was most likely a supernova. I have to say, I fully get Michael’s thing about outer space. After our Big Bang discussion, I shared with him that that very week I had been watching, for the third or fourth time, a Nova series on the planets, and we nerded out together for the next five minutes about the possible presence of water on Mars.

But it’s mostly about time. The very first class, when I was giving the class an overview of what we were going to be doing for the next nine months, at one point I mentioned that, from the very moment God created history, he had a plan for it, that Jesus was central to it, and that our Saturday mornings were going to be about studying the plan and seeing how we fit into it. As soon as I said “God created history”, some lightbulb went off inside Michael and he immediately raised his hand. “Can I ask something?” he said. I said of course he could, and he said, “What’s the B.C. thing?” Which allowed me to explain that “the B.C. thing” was an acknowledgment of exactly what I was talking about: that Christ was at the very center of history. And yes, I told him that in school he was more likely to hear B.C.E., but I also told him that for Christians “Common Era” isn’t really the right name, since once Christ was born nothing was common ever again. So we spent the fall moving through B.C.: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the Prophets. And then, the second Sunday in Advent, when Michael came in and looked at the Catholic Children’s Bible on the prayer table to see what we’d be doing that day, it was opened to the Annunciation and across the top of the two pages, in large black letters it said, “The New Testament”. “What’s the New Testament?” he said. I told him that everything we’d done so far, all the way up to the Prophets, was Old Testament, but as soon as the Bible starts talking about Jesus being born, we’re in the New.

The New Testament became his abiding fixation. Our art project that day was to make Christmas cards for the parishioners I bring Communion to. As I walked around visiting the children’s “studios” as they worked, I saw that Michael had used his stick-em gems to make a large, sparkly “N”, after which he had crayoned “ew Testament”. He was intent that his homebound parishioner should know we were in the New Testament—so intent he almost forgot to wish him Merry Christmas. Later in class he looked up at me and said, “2021, what’s that?” “New Testament,” I said. He shook his head and said, “Oh, okay,” reassured. The next week when he came in for class, he said good morning, and said, “We’re still in the New Testament, right?” I promised him we’d be in it for a while—in fact, his whole life. The next week it wasn’t a question anymore, it was an assertion: he came in, said good morning, and told me, “It’s the last Sunday of Advent—and we’re in the New Testament.”

We’re on break now, so I won’t see Michael for a couple weeks. But the Director of Religious Ed. told me that he had seen Michael at the Family Mass on Christmas Eve. I imagined how excited he must have been to see the figure of the Christ Child placed in the manger—and how happy he was to hear proclaimed from the pulpit that we were now in the New Testament.

So am I.

One thought on “Michael at the Manger

  1. Thank you. Your story is sooecial and you are so caRing and teaching of your little student…but in a grown up way to match his eager learni n.g
    It brings a smile to my face and a gracias that you are there for him.
    Happy New Year!


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