Christmases of my childhood were magical and full of meaning. At the beginning of Advent each year we dug special books out of the attic, and my mom read them aloud to my brother and me over and over again. From My Bible Friends’ Bethlehem story — “clip-clop-clip-clop went little donkey’s hooves” — to tales of lonely, misunderstood trolls wishing for someone to love rather than fear them. Each day we opened a window or door of our Advent calendar village.
There were few, but cherished, gifts. One year it was just new pajamas for each of us. I wore those pajamas for five years (I didn’t grow very fast and never got tall) before the holes outnumbered the patches of remaining fabric. No American Girl dolls, but a knock-off with homemade dresses which were even more splendid than the ones in the catalog.
And there was always music, much music. At home we sang and danced along to Julie Andrews, Amy Grant, Manheim Steamroller, Canadian Brass. Both of my parents were organists and choir directors in a variety of churches — Adventist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic — and took us along to rehearsals and services where we were spoiled by the church members and ate way too many cookies.
As many children do, I lived for Christmas.
At some point, the shine dulled, and not just for Christmas. Perhaps it was the confusion of changing hormones that comes with adolescence. Or the stress of transferring to a new school between sophomore and junior years of academy. Or grief and resentment about my parents’ divorce. Or maybe depression lurks in my genes…
Many nights I cried myself to sleep to Jennifer LaMountain’s songs: “No more night, no more pain, no more tears, never crying again…” I wished it to be true. “Darkness around me, sorrow surrounds me; Though there be trials, still I can sing.” I couldn’t sing, but she could, on and on. It helped and hurt at the same time. Jennifer sang the promise, and I asked God why it couldn’t be real for me too.
I tried so hard to be happy. People told me countless times, “Just smile. You’re so pretty when you smile.” “Happiness is a choice” — which implied I didn’t have enough desire or will power to be happy.
I finally went to see the school counselor (Sari Butler, who is a wonderful, compassionate, wise woman), and she put me in touch with a therapist who quickly prescribed anti-depressants. The drugs helped a little, but I was still mostly numb and angry — with my dad, with life, with myself for being so angry and miserable all the time.
My 17th year, with only my dad and me together for Christmas, I told him I wanted no tree, no decorations. But someone kindly — I’m sure they meant it as a kindness — delivered a beautiful tree to our house. A friend saw our naked tree and dragged me shopping for ornaments, which I grudgingly placed on its boughs. I really wanted nothing to do with the season. The brightness glared; holiday cheer was raucous. It took more energy than I could spare to feign delight and participate in the awful merriment.
I didn’t want to attend Andrews Academy’s Festival of Lights that Christmas. I’d dropped out of orchestra because my schedule was full, so I don’t think I was required to go. But Jennifer LaMountain was going to be there, so I went. Wintley Phipps was there too, and their voices filled Pioneer Memorial Church and made me wish all the more that I could be alive, that I could feel the wonder and power of their music.
At the end of the program, as is tradition, Academy alumni and students were invited to come onto the platform to join orchestra and choir in the Hallelujah Chorus. I don’t know what compelled me — always shy, depressed or no — to walk forward. I crept onto the stage from the side entrance and hid behind towering Wintley Phipps. Standing under the blinding lights, I didn’t feel anything, but knew I should, and felt guilty for not being awed.
Then Jennifer LaMountain materialized by my side and took my hand. She led me to the front of the stage. And we sang. Yes, I sang too. Hallelujah.
Something in me broke open a crack and let in a trickle of hope.
The next day I flew with classmates to Honduras to spend the rest of the school break at an orphanage, teaching music. I guided small fingers over recorder holes and taught motions to “Jesus’ Love Is a’Bubbling Over.” My heart broke as I heard the children’s stories — seeing someone shoot her mother; walking around Tegucigalpa with infant sister in his arms, searching for food; eating poisonous frogs because there was nothing else to eat. And my heart broke open even more as I received their hugs and tears and smiles and love. I don’t think I gave them much — I came with a well bone dry — but by the time we said goodbye, my heart was full and spilling over.
That Christmas was the beginning of living again.
This being human is not always fun. Sometimes it hurts unbearably. Sometimes life loses its spark and no one or thing can put it back. I’m grateful Christmas holds all the reality of existence. There’s no room in the inn, but there’s all the starry expanse for a choir of angels. There are labor pains and blood and clean swaddling clothes and coos. There’s the omen of sword piercing Mary’s heart even as she holds Jesus against her breast. Yes, there’s the adorable, fresh-smelling baby in the manger and the babies torn from their mothers’ arms. There’s darkness and light, joy and grief, sorrow and hope.
This is what Incarnation means to me — that God enters our earthiness, takes on flesh and bone, becomes one with our suffering and our longing. God is present in this sometimes magical, sometimes painful life. It’s all held in the promise of resurrection; after death comes life, after night, morning; after crying, joy. Maybe not right away, but someday. That’s why we wait. Advent. Waiting for the coming of Christ.
Joelle Chase graduated from Andrews Academy (02) and Andrews University (07) with a Bachelors in Elementary Education. She currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she serves as Director of Messaging for the Center for Action and Contemplation, an ecumenical nonprofit founded by Franciscan Richard Rohr. This article first appeared on SpectrumMagazine.org on December 20, 2014. Later, it was published in a collection of Advent and Christmas essays entitled Goodness and Light. It has been reprinted here on Spectrum again with permission from the author.
Photo Credit: christian sherratt / FreeImages.com
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