Once upon a Christmas

(Spectrumbot) #1

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.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6510

(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13) #2

I haven’t the words to tell you how poignant & meaningful this Advent reflection is. You’ve articulated the heart rending brokenness of humanity which Advent hope must salve—perhaps through us & despite us.
Amidst the pain, we want to declare w/ Mary,
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

(Bille) #3

So perfectly crafted, there is hardly anything to say other than thank you and amen. God is present. Always present. Sharing with us whatever we face and experience…

Thank you once more for capturing for us this essence of Christmas.

(jeremy) #4

this is quite a touching story…divorce for a child is always a difficult thing, even though it is relatively common now…this story captures well the inner turmoil in the heart of the child, even though it isn’t always perceived or understood by others…

and what a wonderful thing that trip to honduras was…to go, feeling empty inside, but then to return, brimming over…this is definitely the meaning of xmas - to receive christ in our hearts through varied experiences, and become transformed, as a result…

(Carrol Grady`) #5

Ah, Joelle, you have written so beautifully about our human condition. Christmas was magic for me for a long time - until my children grew up and began to leave home. It took quite a few years and some hard knocks until the deeper spiritual meaning of Christmas replaced the lights and music that had so entranced me. Bless you for sharing so honestly.

(Steve Mga) #6

Because we as Seventh day Adventists do not follow the Liturgical Year, we miss out on a lot of Spirituality and meaning in the Scriptures.
The 4 weeks of Advent and the 2 weeks of Christmas with discussion of the longing for the Savior and then the reception of the Savior is lost to us as SDAs,

As most know, Episcopalians baptize in one way by pouring water over the head [another way is by actual immersion of the whole body]. At the church I sing in the choir on Sundays, we moved the baptismal fount to near the door entrance and keep a little fresh water in it. It is there for members to dip their fingers in the water and to touch their forehead. Is it Magical Water? No! What it is is a reminder and a reacceptance of one’s baptismal vows as one enters from the World, or leaves to go out to the World to love and serve the Lord.
It is an interesting phenomenon to watch how many members take advantage of “rebaptising” themselves each week, re-newing their baptismal vows to themselves.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #7

this a a new Christmas experience for me. I was released from the hospital at 11 A. M. iIn the emergency room I coded a week ago. According to them was clinical dead for three minutes. I arrived home with a pacemaker and two stents. We will celebrate family Christmas on about New Years. Being good is my only option. Tom Z


Tom, I am very happy to hear that you are on the mend after such a terrible ordeal.Thank the Lord for His mercy to all of us who don’t deserve His goodness. Your mother was very kind to me when I was in my early twenties when I was new to the SDA message. As was your brother Jack. That was fifty years ago and now I am almost seventy years old. Jack and I were involved closely with the gospel emphasis of the 1970s with our good friend Bob Brinsmead. I was the business manager for a short time in Fallbrook office of Present Truth. After Bob left the message I started the on line version and am the editor there now. The address of the site is www.PresentTruthMag.org Blessing to you and say hi to Jack for me.

(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13) #9

I’m grateful that you made it through & are home, Tom. The Babe of Bethlehem brought Light into the darkness then, & brings it no less bright still for us. Christmas blessings to you & yours.

(George Tichy) #10

Tom, I am so glad you made it. Still yesterday I was thinking of you, that you haven’t written anything for a few days.
Hope you will recover promptly and have a nice Xmas and a very happy new year.
God bless you !!!

(Thomas J Zwemer) #11

T’s the season to be jolly! The glorious wonder of it all confronts us in all of its majesty. What a better time to recount the Glories that have befallen us, we without merit.
The Glory of Creation: imagine God choosing a minor satellite of a moderate sun to plant man in God’s image in a world full of marvels to tend. We know how—He spoke, we know why—to expand His fellowship. We don’t know when except in our beginning.
The Glory of the Covenant: imagine the Godhead agreeing to rescue man if he fell into rebellion.
The Glory of the Manger: That the second member of the Godhead, the Son no less, became a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The One conceived by the Holy Spirit carried in the womb of a mere girl—Mary, arrives as the Second Adam without even the taint of sin. That moment recognized and announced by a host of Angels, to humble shepherds, noticed by distance wise men, and feared by the ruling king.

Grew to manhood as a humble carpenter, entered His ministry with the blessing of the Holy Spirit, and tested by Satan himself. Began His ministry by accommodating His mother, called eleven to Him and accepted a twelfth as His disciples. The Glory of the ministry is best told by the woman, who touched the hem of His garment, the woman, at the well, the woman, who bathed his feet with her tears. The Centurion, who said, just say the word and my son lives. The Centurion, who commented, surely with was the Son of God.
The Glory of the Cross, The cry—“It is finished” announces that the Everlasting Covenant has become the Everlasting Gospel. God has demonstrated before the universe that He is Just and the Justifier of him that believeth in Him.
The Glory of the Empty Tomb, The grave could not hold Him. Divinity shone through the flesh, returning to the Father, he comes again to those who mourn, comforts, completes His ministry by charging His disciples and us to proclaim the Glad Tidings and the Good News.
The Glory of the Installation, The triumphal entry has it climax in the setting of Jesus, the Christ, at the right hand of the Father as our High Priest. We now can come boldly to the throne of Grace in His Name.
The Glory of Anticipation, The promise of His return as King of King and Lord of Lord’s is not vanity, but the fulfillment of all destiny.
Let us rejoice: The Man Who Is God, is our Lord and Master.

Praise be to God.

Tom Z.

(Sirje) #12

Merry Christmas Tom! Good to hear from you.

(Sirje) #13

Merry Christmas everybody. For those of you down under, happy boxing day!

(Alita Byrd) #14

Joelle, What a touching and thought-provoking essay. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. One of the best reflections on Christmas I have ever read. Thank you, and merry Christmas.