On a chilly Sunday afternoon in December, the day of our annual Christmas Pageant, I gathered a group of children in the makeshift green room of an assisted-living facility. The chaplain explained to the kids, who shifted in their robes or batted at angels’ wings, that the residents of this facility lived with disabilities. Some moved around in wheelchairs, others vocalized with sounds rather than words, while a few appeared unresponsive. Regardless, the chaplain insisted, all of them like to be greeted with a smile and a warm, “Hello.” She reminded the children that one resident was known to bring his drum, and he might spontaneously accompany a song or two. Another would likely to yell when he was excited. “So be prepared for noise, but just know it’s their way of showing you that they’re having a good time.” She paused, then said, “They are just so happy to have you here.” Some of the children nodded, others stared off into space. A haloed child wiggled and proclaimed, on the verge of tears, her costume was “too scratchy.” Nevertheless, the chaplain gave us the “ready” signal, and we lined up the children, then marched them into the multi-purpose room that served as a chapel. For the next twenty minutes, the children came forward one by one to read the biblical accounts of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth. One narrator spoke of “King Harold.” In homemade costumes and felted crowns, they trampled up onto the stage to sing familiar Christmas songs and traditional hymns, with the occasional child plunging off the side of the stage. Amid the angelic chorus, the itchy angel’s red face revealed her disdain for the entire charade.
As they sang, an amazing thing happened. Residents began to sway and sing, as if the melodies unearthed a precious gem from their interior lives. A slow smile stretched across the face of one frozen in a wheelchair. We heard a strangled yelp of joy from the back, and the drummer issued a strange beat into the air. There we were--elders and children, cranky and delighted, so many of us differently abled, differently wired, all singing together (somewhat offkey) the sacred songs of old. Odd and wondrous as it sounds, when we sang in unison that day the music found every hidden entrance to our hearts. It laid bare our longings and hopes, our sorrows and joys. It made us one.
Advent--the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve--is one of the most counter-cultural seasons of the church year--a time when we ready our hearts to receive the mystery of incarnation: God pitching a tent among us. God stealing into our hearts, our lives, our world in the form of an infant. The Word made flesh. While the rest of the world begins Christmas early with endless rounds of gift-giving, cookie-eating, Santa visits, holiday parades, and cheer, Advent delays our gratification. It calls us to speak honestly of our yearning and the mystery of human living. It requires us to wait, in prayer and in preparation, to receive God into our lives once again.
In Advent, each week we light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. So often these words get hijacked by the Christmas machine. Sometimes even our own shallow longings co-opt these words. Hope as the superficial optimism that God will work it all out in the end, so why get outraged about what’s wrong with the world? Peace as the uncanny calm empty of critical discourse, too wearied to act. Joy as the canned laughter at a holiday party, drink in hand. Love as expressed through shopping and consuming. These deep spiritual concepts are reduced to cheap knock-offs. It is our task, in Advent, to recover their roots. It is our task, as we marvel at the wonder of Emmanuel—God with us—to enflesh hope, peace, joy and love so fully that, once again, they point the way toward our transformation. Because this year, window-dressing versions will not suffice for the journey. In these times, watered down notions of these words cannot harbor us from despair. Today, our world hungers for a sturdy, subversive understanding of the Christmas story that speaks to the story unfolding all around us.
God comes to us this season like a divine refugee, a holy immigrant, a sign of transgressive hope. God, bedecked in the brown flesh of a newborn infant, comes to us a stranger who would know suffering in resistance. Born of the blood of a scandalized teen who groaned in labor, God travels the distance between divinity and humanity, arriving amid the stench of barn animals, illegitimate and ordinary. God comes to us carrying an abiding love for our blessed, wretched world. And this exquisite, divine love saves us. It fashions us into prisoners of hope. This is magnificent news, and also an utter mystery. Annie Dillard writes, “Not only does something come if you wait, but it pours over you like a waterfall. You wait emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will sheer, loose, launch, winnow, and grind…the waiting itself is the thing.”
Back at the assisted-living facility, our pageant ended. Before we could make a move for the door, the chaplain invited us to join them in singing a few more songs. She turned to the residents. “What would you like to sing?” Someone said loudly, gesturing toward an orderly who had been affectionately rubbing the head of a man in a wheelchair, “He can sing O Holy Night!” The young orderly shook his head softly, as if shrugging off the suggestion. Someone else confirmed it, and now the chaplain was calling on him to sing. He was quiet and gender non-conforming, the kind of person I imagined might have experienced a painful exile from the church of his childhood. But when he opened his mouth, his arrestingly beautiful voice blanketed the room with pure, perfect calm. O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining! It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, til he appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices…
In that out-of-the way place, among children and those the world too often counts as last and least, God once again slipped in among us, in Word and song, telling us all again about the love that knows no bounds. We left that building flushed with quiet wonder, stepping out under twilight skies wiped clean, back into lives heavy with chaotic schedules, private longings, and the unrelenting anticipation of our children. O Holy Night, the voice rang in our head, and we lifted our eyes, assured that God’s tender mercies would find us out again...if only we wait.