Guest Post — In Error Pining: Thoughts on Christmas
Despite my love of Christmas, of lights and decorations and holiday traditions and carols, for many years I felt a deep sadness at Christmas. Christmas often seemed to highlight what I didn’t have. My family doesn’t always do well at the holidays and it was frequently a time of stress. When my beloved grandparents died almost seven years ago, I wondered if I would ever be able to recapture my love of Christmas. Six years ago I was mourning their loss, which had also triggered my fear that perhaps I would never marry. I was in my late twenties and one of the things I was saddest about was that my grandparents would never meet my as yet unknown spouse or hold my hypothetical children. I remember weeping in my Bishop’s office during tithing settlement when he asked me “How are you doing?” I was surprised by my emotion and response, since I was usually fairly good at smiling and saying “Fine,” no matter what was really going on.
But that year I began to acknowledge my loss and disappointment that things in my life felt perilous and tenuous. I found myself walking over to the Catholic church in my parents’ neighborhood on Christmas Eve. The pomp and pageantry of the Midnight Mass reminded me of the magic of Christmas, the homily on peace on Earth soothed my sadness and the Christmas songs made my throat close as I worshiped the birth of the Savior. As hundreds of people sang Silent Night, I acknowledged my disappointment in my family’s celebration of Christmas, my fear that I would be forever single and without family, my mourning for my grandparents. Somehow, the Divine swept over me and soothed and comforted my raw soul.
About a month later, I was wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on my way out the door impulsively decided to check out the gift shop. There was a huge Christmas clearance sale going on. I sifted through various ornaments inspired by works of art, trinkets and cards and happened upon a beautiful golden Christmas star tree-topper. It was a glorious thing; engraved and filigreed and meant for the top of a Christmas tree far grander than the little table top tree that my roommates and I traditionally got for our tiny city apartment. Even at 75% off, it was still not really in the budget of a recently minted MSW and I set the star aside. But I kept coming back to it, even as the practical part of my brain wondered where on earth I would put it when every square inch of space in my closet, drawers and under my bed was already taken, and pointed out that it was an impractical expense. I couldn’t help but envision a future Christmas where I had a family and a beautiful tree with this golden star on top. And so, I found myself buying the star, an act of hope in an uncertain future. As I walked home through Central Park, the star bumping against my leg I thought of the gifts of the wise men; gold, frankincense and myrrh, gifts to honor a future king rather than the present humble circumstances of a wee babe.
The star stayed with me as I moved apartments and there was a Christmas where it’s golden gleam mocked me as I thought that the man I loved and I would break up. By the time I was able to put it on top of the first Christmas tree my husband and I decorated together as a married couple I had unexpectedly fallen deep into a shifting of faith and despite my best efforts Christmas was once again a time of sadness and stress for me. I found myself unable to tap into the magic of Christmas despite the fact that I had almost everything I’d hoped for when I bought the star; somehow marriage had not healed me in the ways I had hoped. But still, I loved the star and thought of how the star of Bethlehem guided the wise men in their quest for Christ, for a new king.
While decorating my tree last Christmas, I found myself thinking about Mary and Joseph. Mary, Mary and Joseph, Mother and Father to Jesus, Son of God. Whatever you may think about the accuracy of the Christmas story, I think we can all acknowledge that Mary and Joseph did not intend to be parents of the Savior of the World. It must be very upsetting to one’s sense of self to find yourself engaged to a women who is pregnant with a child that is not yours. Or to find yourself pregnant out of wedlock when you “know not a man” As told, the circumstances of the birth of Jesus forced Mary and Joseph outside of their cultural and religious constraints in ways that must have been terribly difficult. Oh, how I hope that there were indeed angels and wise men to minister to Mary and Joseph because I feel a kinship to the Holy Couple, forced to grapple with faith and God in unanticipated ways.
This year, I have been thinking about other parts of the Christmas story – the darker stories that we often avoid during this season. I’ve thought about Herod the King and I think I understand him more than I used to – I’ve learned more about the kind of fear that leads someone to preserve power through any means possible, even the slaughter of hundreds or thousand of innocents. I rolled my eyes when recently counseled at a Church function to remember the resurrection of Christ at this time of year, but at the same time something has crystallized for me this Christmas as I’ve thought about the life of Jesus, his ministry and the Pharisees. We criticize them for their obsession with following outdated rules rather than hearkening to the Savior’s simple commandments, for not recognizing the glory and divinity in their midst, for failing to take advantage of the saving and redeeming power of love even as they waited for a Savior. I have begun to understand how and why we seek to preserve our place in society and the misguided belief that if we can only adhere closely enough to old traditions that we may not understand or thinking about and increasingly minute sets of rules we will be set free rather than confronting the messiness that is love.
My faith is still roiled; I am coming to accept that it will never be what it once was. I am coming to terms with the fact that God and Jesus and Divinity, well, they look different than I had ever thought. But in my “error pining” I long for the gifts of the baby Jesus. For his ordinariness of being born at an inconvenient time and an inconvenient place and for his radical message of love and acceptance. And even as I look at my nativity set and see, with pain, that Mary is the only woman in the Holy Story (something many will no doubt think is stupid and that I somehow missed until the past few years) I see something that I did not used to in the stoic faces of Mary and Joseph. I think God wants all of us to confront our misconceptions about ourselves. The largest gift of Jesus may in fact be that when we find him, we are forced to see past all the layers of who we wish to be, try to be, pretend to be, hope to be or want to be and discover that we are loved in spite of those things- not because of them.
I am reminded of this as I gaze at my glorious Christmas star atop my tree. It reminds me of many things – of a star that wise men watched for to herald a shift in times, that sometimes we receive gifts that aren’t exactly what we need at the time, of the fact that sometimes we must have faith in the things we hope for even when it seems bleak. Next to the star is a small angel girl. Every year my husband and I pick out an ornament at a charming shop in our neighborhood in New York. Every year we agonize over the decision – I want something pretty and my husband wants something that symbolizes our year. This year as we talked over what has happened to us this year, my husband suggested that we get something with a woman “For feminism. And because you went to the Exponent Retreat.” And so, we have our angel girl perched near that golden star. I was a closet feminist when we married, and it really didn’t seem that important to me. My marriage set off a faith crisis centered in issues related to women, that I didn’t see coming. But I also didn’t see the gifts coming; the faithful husband who would listen to everything I have to say, do his own seeking and ultimately declare himself a feminist, who would pretty much pack me out the door to a retreat where he hoped I would find sisterhood, who would hold me when I wept with so many in July of this year, who would love me not despite my unorthodoxy but because of it. I didn’t anticipate the glory of the pure grace that I experienced when I finally allowed myself to take my pain to God instead of trying to hide it away. These gifts were unknown to me when I bought my golden star, just as the those shepherds and wise men and even Mary and Joseph couldn’t fully know all the gifts Christ would bring. But they are great and glorious and priceless,, I hope this Christmas, we all “hear the angels voices” in ways small and large.
(Ashley is originally from the Washington DC area and now lives in New York City with her husband. She is learning to enjoy Christmas again.)