A Prayer for Owen Meany

by: John Irving

Chapter 4: The Little Lord Jesus

Summary Chapter 4: The Little Lord Jesus


The Christmas of 1953, the first Christmas since John's mother died, is a gloomy holiday. For the first time in John's memory, he does not go to Sawyer Depot, because his grandmother believes that that would make them all too lonely for John's mother. Instead, eleven-year-old John and Owen root around in the Gravesend Academy dormitories (Dan has a master key), while Dan works on the Gravesend Players' production of A Christmas Carol, starring Mr. Fish as Mr. Scrooge. Owen and John are to act in the church Christmas pageant; Owen is adamant that he not be forced to play the Announcing Angel, a role he has felt humiliated by for the past several Christmases.

Rev. Wiggin and Barb have a unique approach to a Christmas pageant: they dress the littlest children in absurd turtledove costumes, let the prettiest girl play Mary, and keep a huge supply of infants backstage in case the Christ Child begins to bawl. Over the Christmas holiday, as Owen and John snoop through the empty rooms of vacationing boys, they learn where to look for pornography--and when they discover it, it inevitably lowers Owen's opinion of the room's occupant. The experience is depressing, the numbing sameness of each boy's belongings, each boy's sense of homesickness, contributing to Owen's belief that dormitories are "EVIL." In one boy's room, they discover condoms, which Owen gleefully announces are banned by the Catholic Church. They take turns putting one on their "tiny penises," which John sees for Owen as an act of religious rebellion--one more proof that he has escaped the Catholic Church, one more repayment for the unknown insult the church dealt his mother and father.

At the meeting to cast parts for the Christmas pageant, Owen sternly declares to Barb Wiggin that he will under no circumstances play the Announcing (or Descending) Angel. John is cast as Joseph, but no one will step forward to be the angel. Suddenly, a fat boy named Harold Crosby tips over backward and falls out of his chair--an accident mistaken by the rector for volunteering. Harold protests that he is afraid of heights, but the rector is unflinching: Harold will play the angel. Owen convinces the group that he should be allowed to play the Christ Child, to eliminate the need for droves of babies being passed about backstage. In this way, Owen Meany is chosen to play the Baby Jesus.

Using a textual argument based on the carol "Away in a Manger," Owen successfully lobbies to have the crib removed from the manger scene ("...no crib for a bed..."), and constructs himself a regal nest amid the hay. Mary Beth Baird, the Virgin Mary, desperately wants to be able to show her affection for the Baby Jesus, and Owen suggests that she could bow to him. She does, and the rector decides to keep this in the pageant.

Writing in 1987, John says that he prefers to go to his current church, Grace Church, for services on the weekdays, when there are no sermons and no families with children. He describes the usual experience of sitting behind a family with children dragged to church against their will. Again, he criticizes the clergy at his church--one of them is a racist, one of them wears faded clothes. He says that he does not go to the Christmas pageants at Grace Church because the Christmas pageant of 1953 was all the Nativity he needed: he has already witnessed the miracle.

In 1953, Dan's production of A Christmas Carol is stymied by poor performances by the amateur actors; the Scrooge of the show, Mr. Fish, frequently drops by to complain. John writes that though Mr. Fish lived next door to 80 Front Street, he never knew Mr. Fish's occupation--to John, he was all neighbors, everyone who rakes their lawn and plays fetch with their dog nearby. John remembers the day Mr. Fish's dog, Sagamore, died; Mr. Fish likes to lure John and Owen over to play football, and one day Owen succeeds in kicking a punt a very long way. Sagamore runs after the ball, and collides with a diaper truck bringing a delivery to a young family on the street. Sagamore is buried in Mrs. Wheelwright's rosebushes; Owen presides over the ceremony, providing the little group of mourners with sorrowful candles. The Rev. Merrill appears, but he stutters and cannot say anything, so Owen recites the "I am the resurrection and the life" verse. This was before John's mother's death, and she takes Owen's hand.

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