Christmas was different this year.
This Christmas was void of any trappings from the cultural myth of Christmas this year. There were no lights strung or stockings hung with care. The ornaments we have been collecting throughout our now adult daughters’ lives were not unwrapped from last year and the Christmas boxes remained in the garage. There was one small candle a friend from Fort Lauderdale sent; it was a silent sentinel on the television stand.
A Facebook post I placed on my page this year garnered only three responses once it was put up. It depicts a contemporary version of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem whereupon “Jose’ and Maria” are standing out in the rain in front of a closed 7-11 using a pay phone. Maria is sitting side-saddle on a muted pink horse that requires quarters to be deposited in it before it will ‘give her a ride.’ Behind them is the neon sign from Dave’s City Motel. The look on their faces is desperate. Entitled, “Jose’ y Maria” and sketched by Everett Patterson, it serves as a dramatic foil to the cultural myths and Western projections on what Christmas is all about in our own time; we easily forget, for example, that Joseph and Mary were really “people of color” who were refugees following the decrees of an oppressive political ruler. I personally loved this portrayal of the Holy Family because it is so raw and real. Yet, people on Facebook did not appreciate either its rawness nor realness; give us instead a happy, sterile understanding of Christmas because Jesus is the reason for the season, right? Well…
We tend to have lost our way and have bought into the cultural trappings of Christmas. But what if we were to pause a moment during these 12 Days of Christmas and truly ponder what the original Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were like. Unlike our westernized, consumer-tinged view of these special days, the first Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were not all glorious and festive as we like to think they were.
We forget that a young girl who could’ve won your high school Sophomore class’s homecoming winner was nine-months pregnant on a seventy-mile donkey ride from up north and was about to burst. Water breaking and screaming in labor is not usually in our sterile Christmas memories. Aside from a shepherd or two, there were no farm hands hanging outside the manger’s windows like Dorothy’s friends in Kansas when she wakes up from Oz. A small fire is more likely than strung lights and lanterns which is probably just as well; it’s horrible enough to be relegated to deliver your baby in a dirty manger but to see the manure piles and molting animals as well would be too much for the Holy Couple to bear. Contrary to our Christmas pageants, the misnomered Three Kings do not even show up until two years later. But we like the Christmas dramas we portray today! They are pretty and adorable. They are clean and marketed. And it’s high time we pause to remember this is not what it was like for this teenaged girl and the young man whose fiancee’ was about to gush forth new life. We tend to forget about the pains and trauma of birth. We somehow neglect to remember that Mary’s birth in that stall was just as a bloody mess as anyone’s would be today. But it’s Christmas. We’re supposed to be happy. We’re supposed to be all giddy and joyful. We are to look our best and enjoy our presents and holiday food and drink.
This Christmas was different than former years. I left my current position as a pastor of a church on December 3 in order to gear up for a new call and placement in south Florida after the first of the year. When a pastor leaves his or her church, they really have to leave it and break ties in hard and painful ways. A good pastor knows the church she just left is not her church but is God’s. A caring pastor knows that he cannot preach one Sunday and then sit in the pews of the same church next week as though nothing has happened. When a pastor and their family leaves a church, there needs to be a clean break. The breaks are not easy nor are they comfortable but necessary they are. The break was made. Hoping to use this downtime as a way for me and my bride to take a breath and look towards making our move, Reality intervened.
One of the strongest women I have known became ill. We have spent three and half decades together besting the odds of life and her health. We first met in our junior year of college. I asked her twin sister out for a date a few months prior to her arrival and was shot down. “But I have a twin sister you might like!” my now sister-in-law said. I married a twin.
While sister Kathy was away at college, Kelly stayed back in Atlanta undertaking a dual vocation of going to college while also spending full-time fighting for her life. Late in her senior year in high school, she developed a cough the doctors thought was related to post-nasal drip or mono. The problem is, it never went away. An x-ray showed a fist-sized, inoperable tumor in her chest that was closing up the bronchial passage; further tests indicated she had full blown non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. After she fought the illness for two years at Emory Hospital with thousands of rads of chest radiation and chemotherapy protocol that would be considered inhumane today, she left to join her sister at college whereupon we soon met and fell in love.
Kelly was different from other girls I had gone out with before. She cried at the sight of beautiful sunsets and treated each day by gloating over it like a woman admiring a rose for the first time. Waves of young hopefulness lifted us to marriage but to be honest, I never thought we would be married that long. Throughout the rest of college and into our early years as a couple, she often developed lumps in her neck or other parts of her body that we would have to go through weeks of testing and waiting to see if the lumps were benign. She had minor surgeries here and there to pull hyperactive lymph nodes out and by Grace, they always came back from the lab “negative.” At least until she was 35.
The call came one morning at home. She answered the phone and the longer the conversation went on, the more somber her tone became. She hung the phone back up on the wall, looked at me and said, “I’ve got breast cancer.” My fears were becoming realized. The cause? Radiation to her chest 18 years earlier. Her job was to overcome cancer again and she did. Following a double mastectomy and brutal reconstructive surgery and several months of healing, Kelly returned to her healthy self. This whole incident taught us something, though: Even cures for healing have consequences. What helped to save her before was mounting to rise up and try to kill her when she was not looking. For the next ten years life went on with all of its family ups and downs but we began to notice Kelly was getting fatigued more easily. Back to the doctor she went, and this time, we learned the radiation from 28 years earlier that caused the breast cancer also has caused heart damage: Her aortal valve was closing up. So, at the young age of 45, the strongest woman I have ever known had open heart surgery and got a new cow valve that had a shelf-life of 12 to 15 years.
In case you ever wanted to know, a cow valve lasted about 11 years in Kelly. So, for the last year, we have been slowly monitoring her health as the valve she replaced years ago was closing up again. The atrophying cow valve mooed loudly just a week after I gave my last sermon at the church. The ties had been broken. Kelly’s heart began to become more broken, too; she went into congestive heart failure.
Christmas was different this year. We did not have a church community we could throw ourselves in as we were in between calls. The power of fellowship from a community of faith cannot be understated; one of the glaring differences this year was the lack of community we could lean into and draw strength from. It is not that our old church meant to neglect us; they simply did not know as the necessary cut in ties was made. Our new church family four hours away was, well, four hours away. They were eager to be present for us but the distance was a factor. The spiritual strength of the tangible, gathered community was absent this year and its absence was a huge presence in our lives.
Christmas was different this year as well because I wondered if Kelly was going to get through this. Even the medical community went on hiatus over the holidays and it was hard to get medical advice and assistance. She was not sleeping well. She coughed and hacked and got to the point she could not catch her breath. Her energy was nil and her chest raced at any amount of exertion. Shopping for gifts and merrymaking was the furthest thing in our minds; I was wondering whether to check in on her if she slept past 8:30 to see if she was still breathing. This Christmas the issues of life and mortality took center stage. There was no tree. There were no presents exchanged. For the first time in over 35 years, I was not in church or leading the Christmas Eve service. Yes, Christmas was different this year. There were no lights or glitter but a simple daily step-by-step through Advent wondering if there really was Christmas hope.
The absence of all the traditional trappings of Christmas this Advent and Christmas made Christmas different this year. It forced me to think about what it means to wait for the Child to be born or if my wife was going to live another day. It forced me to reflect during Advent on what it was like to live in a darkened Christmas like Mary and Joseph when all they could cling to were some promises from an angel and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit that the little child born among the dung and straw would rewire and reboot the Cosmic System.
Christmas was different this year because I learned that Advent and Christmas are not about lights, glitz, parties and booze and gift exchanges. It is not about spending money or buying obligatory gifts for people you really would rather not to recognize but feel socially obligated to do so. Christmas is about the rawness of life and all of life’s challenges. It’s about the scream of the anguish of a mother giving birth and an anxious baby crying as it catches his breath for the very first time. Christmas is not about God coming in a parade but about coming and dwelling among very ordinary people like Joseph and Mary in a small barn. The spectacular power of Christmas is that God chose to live among us in a rather unspectacular way in a world where life is tenuous, health is precarious, and having a roof over your head is a gift indeed. It makes me wonder if Charles Dickens messed up the ending of his infamous, A Christmas Carol; as it is, the ending is too neatly tied up and satisfying. Perhaps it might have a more powerful impact if the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge had to be the Christ to Bob Cratchit and his family while they come to grips with where God was in the midst of the darkest moments of humanity’s frailness on Christmas morning at the death of Tiny Tim. Then perhaps, we might truly understand and comprehend the profundity of gift giving on Christmas day.
The only Christmas decoration we had up this year was a little candle placed on the TV console a friend from Fort Lauderdale sent us. The little candle’s Light was all that we needed. Christmas was different this year and I am glad; I got back to its gritty roots once more and saw the penetrating Light in a world of doubt, hopelessness and darkness.
Copyright 2017 by Patrick H. Wrisley