This Advent season, I will have been an Episcopalian for one year. For those of you with the patience, fortitude, or whatever else it may take, I offer the story of my Christmas miracle. Hopefully, many of you will read this soon enough to invest serious, personal introspection into your celebration of Advent. It has literally changed my life. Like Scrooge, I was rescued from damnation by supernatural intervention – Like the Wise Men, I was led to the Truth by celestial signs – Like the shepherds, I learned to sing about joy to the world.
When I was twelve, my family’s move to a trailer park in a rural town just south of Albuquerque meant an increase in living standards. We had been living in the city’s only definable ghetto – affectionately referred to as the “warzone” by townies. Honestly, my broken family did their best to insulate me and my siblings from the gangs, drugs, and societal ills that seem to accompany poverty. I was a married adult with children before I really appreciated just how destitute my family was when I was growing up. In fact, I never knew it was odd for someone’s parents to raid their piggy bank for money in order to buy a can of soup so that the family could eat dinner until I was at a private college, rubbing elbows with students fretting about maintaining a 2.0 GPA so that their parents wouldn’t take away their Lexus and $1,000.00 per month spending allowance.
I feel like this is necessary background for appreciating the fact that I have always loved Christmas, always. My family’s inability to lavish me with gifts, vacations, and parties didn’t seem to lessen my appreciation for the cultural juggernaut that is Christmas. The sights, sounds, and spirit of Christmas have always captivated me in spite of poverty (- perhaps, because of poverty?). I am literally like the father played by Matthew Broderick in “Deck the Halls.” I have two Christmas trees, 100 wall feet of lighted garland, 5 wreaths, 48 hours of Christmas music on iTunes, a partridge in a pear tree, etc, etc that I cannot wait to dive into every year (it goes up on Thanksgiving day and stays up until well past January 1 – a fact that drives my brother absolutely insane). I am obnoxiously cheery for 6 weeks before and all the way through Christmas, and then obnoxiously depressed for all of January and February because it’s over. I think it bears repeating, I LOVE CHRISTMAS.
“There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.”
~ Erma Bombeck (1927-1996), American author and humorist.
You can probably imagine, then, the disquietude I felt over something that happened three years ago. Christmas had always been symbolic to me of the good that could still come out of humanity. Being around people who are tying to be the best they can be is intoxicating. I have always loved Christmas, in part, because it represents what humanity can accomplish under the right circumstances. My wife and I had just moved into a new house, had our second child, and I had turned our entire home into a wintery wonderland. Coming from a broken home, I was seriously under the impression that my father’s neglect would be some how atoned for by my own careful fathering. So, one night, late in December of ’06, I was struck by the onset of a harrowing realization that I had lived my life up to that point as an attempt to right my parents’ wrongs, but that such a thing could never be accomplished. Everything was about fixing my broken childhood and, therefore, counterfeit: my love of Christmas, my desire to have a healthy family, my pursuit of education, hell, even my faith seemed counterfeit. There, in my upstairs living room in front of an immaculately decorated Noble Fir that could have been in a display case at Macy’s, I began to sob uncontrollably.
“The earth has grown old with its burden of care
But at Christmas it always is young,
The heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair
And its soul full of music breaks the air,
When the song of angels is sung.”
~ Phillips Brooks (1835-93), American Episcopal bishop, wrote ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.
My wife came in to check on me and we shared one of those tender moments in a marriage that galvanizes the union between two people (it was far too emotionally intimate and spiritually significant to share here – I hope, though, that anyone reading this knows what I mean from experience). She prayed with and for me, and I began a slow recovery from the shock that I experienced. However, when a year had passed, I found myself manically celebrating Christmas, desperately hoping to revive the wonder and joy that it had given me all of my life. I was pathetic. It was like watching a small child cling to the lifeless body of a parent that was murdered before their innocent eyes. Christmas was dead, and try as I might, it could not be revived in my heart. I put on the right face, I smiled and laughed at the right times, but I spent that entire holiday season in sheer terror that I had forever lost something very special to me.
“Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope.…It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”
~ Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), Seek That Which Is Above, 1986.
This all happened to coincide with a bevy of church and professional issues that were serving to clarify that God was calling me out of the Assemblies of God. Consequently, in the fall of 2008 I began to brainstorm with my brother-in-law (who was having the same kind of church and professional quandaries) how we were going to rescue Christmas (and our own spirituality) from the clutches of the oblivion known as American consumerism. Then it happened, I latched on to the idea of attending the Episcopal cathedral for Advent services. Having only ever known Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, I thought I would have recognized the leading of the Spirit a little sooner – how’s that for irony, huh? We knew that not only our ideas of Christmas, but also our ideas of “Church” needed a drastic overhaul; and we were searching for something to fill the void. The Advent liturgy seemed like the perfect way to test whether the Church could rescue Christmas. [Allow me to make a quick aside here: the time I spent trying to resuscitate my joy for Christmas was also spent chronically attending church services, church musicals, church pageants, and every other obnoxious derivation thereof. The trite and shallow “Jesus is the reason for the season” mentality that most of those I came in contact with displayed was just as repulsive as the blatant consumerism of the secular crowd. I thought, “My God, this is our freakin’ holiday – it’s THE CHRISTIAN HOLIDAY and these people can’t even do it with any kind of meaningful ceremony or substance. We’re all screwed!”] I am pleased to announce that Christ and His Church can indeed rescue Christmas even from the clutches of consumerism.
“The liturgy of Advent…helps us to understand fully the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, it is necessary to understand that the whole of our life must be an ‘advent,’ a vigilant awaiting of the final coming of Christ. To predispose our mind to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, one day will come to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize him as present in the events of daily life. Therefore, Advent is, so to speak, an intense training that directs us decisively toward him who already came, who will come, and who comes continuously.”
~Pope John Paul II, address delivered December 18, 2002.
Hopefully, you have caught on to the fact that I am a person moved by beauty, ceremony, symbolism, and the like. Thus, I knew it would be necessary for me to attend the high liturgy at the diocesan cathedral (which, luckily, is in Albuquerque). My wife and I chose to attend St. John’s 11:00 am service which uses a full choir, the organ, and the rite II liturgy from the BCP. The choir and congregation sang “O’ Come, O’ Come, Emmanuel” during the procession, and it was the most beautiful service I have ever attended. I still have a hard time explaining the meaning that the Anglican liturgy has for me – my language is still thoroughly charismatic, so I can only tell you that in that Advent service I experienced a “move of the Holy Spirit.” I sobbed, just like I had in my living room when I knew Christmas was dying in my heart – when I knew that my Christian walk had reached one of those pivotal points of change. I sobbed, because I knew that I had found home, because I knew that I had a meaningful way to worship again, because I knew that my family had a place to foster the joy and wonder of Christmas. The Lord, Christ, blessed me with a Christmas miracle.