Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas without the Eve

This is the year my tree star burned out.

It was just a matter of time. Two of the lights were already out, and it was a cheap thing I picked up at Fred Meyer to begin with, probably seven or eight years ago. I've been looking around for a replacement, but there's nothing tasteful at any of the stores I've visited. Perhaps I'll find something in a post-Christmas clearance sale.

There is some powerful symbolism in that dark star, though. This is the first year I'm not at any religious service for Christmas. Instead, we stayed in, had a lovely turkey dinner, then went and saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a far-too-long movie that should've concluded the story, rather than padding it to a fare-the-well with extra story lines and characters that were not a part of the novel. But that's another blog post.

Until this year, Christmas Eve was almost always a hectic time for me. Growing up in the parsonage, I was always a part of whatever services Dad was leading, and often there were more than one. Supper on Christmas Eve was usually something fast, convenient, and non-messy.

Once I was out of my father's parsonage, and into my own, Christmas Eve became even crazier. I wasn't just helping with services now, I was running them. And then came the next piece, as having my children meant post-bedtime wrapping. After leaving the ministry, I continued to have church music jobs, which, of course, meant being at church for the best-attended services of the year. Sometimes there were as many as three of them. Even in the years when I had a break from being a church employee, I found services to attend.

And this year, I didn't.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. Christmas Eve services have always been fertile ground for curmudgeonly criticism. When I was planning them myself, I kept them relatively free of schmaltz, but I suspect that, were I to attend one of those services I led in my younger days, I'd find plenty to kvetch about. As a church musician, I had far less control over content: I selected music for the choir to perform, but I was also handed pieces I had to accompany as pianist, and while some were lovely, others were sweet enough to make my teeth hurt. And then there were the sermons, or what passed for sermons. I can sum up one senior pastor's Christmas preaching with six words: "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." The other tried much harder to keep his sermons in the meaning zone, and succeeded admirably, but at a level that just didn't reach me. Other sermons I heard from the pews never did much for me, either.

Because let's face it: the one thing Christmas Eve has to offer is not preachable. It's mystery. You can't cloak mystery in sentiment or comfort or whimsy. Musically, mystery comes through best when it's sung in a language few can speak (e.g., Daniel Pinkham's "Christmas Cantata," which I was privileged to sing in graduate school), or instrumentally with music that only hints at familiar melodies (e.g., Richard Purvis's "Divinum Mysterium," one of my mother's favorite pieces to play on the organ).

But what about beauty? What about holding up candles while we sing "Silent Night"?

Take the story itself: a baby born in a barn. A teenaged unwed mother sweating, grunting, screaming, the wail of the child gasping for its first breath. The air is pungent with stable odors: urine, feces, the straw that is now spattered with blood. Yes, there is a rough beauty in birth, but it is not the gentle, orderly swell of candlelight accompanied by the singing of a German lullaby. Birth is miraculous, mysterious, but it is rarely pretty; and few mothers have the strength to remain awake, let alone sing, in the aftermath of delivering a child.

I have attended two births. Both were life-changing events. Both were terrifying. The second ended in near-tragedy, and a two week advent wait to know if the baby would even get to come home. The truest way I can observe Christmas is to meditate on each of those terrible, wonderful days, to put myself back into those delivery rooms, struggling to be strong and supportive, to keep my fear in check, to be proud of my wife for what she was accomplishing, to advocate for her when she wanted something and the hospital staff was slow to provide it, and to be fully present at every moment, even those during which she could not.

Each birth involved a sleepless night. After the first, I held my daughter as her mother slept and the nurses cleaned up. I gazed into her solemn blue eyes, and told her how much she was loved, would always be loved. She fell asleep in my arms. And then I had to fight to keep myself from joining her in sleep, terrified now that I would drop her. She was finally taken from me and placed in a bassinet, then wheeled, along with her mother, to a four-bed maternity ward. After I'd made sure they were set, I drove home to make some phone calls--and dozed off behind the wheel moments after leaving the hospital grounds, snapping awake to find myself going off the road and onto an embankment. I got home in one piece, made my overseas calls, took a nap, drove back to the hospital, and still remember the weeks that followed as one of the happiest times of my life.

The second birth did not turn out the same way. After 24 hours of labor, my son was finally delivered, but something was wrong. Normally there'd be a weighing, a checking of stats, and then a quick return to the relieved, happy parents. Instead, we waited as more and more doctors came into the room, hushed voices exchanged information, and finally someone came to tell us he wasn't breathing right--or rather, that even though he was breathing, he wasn't getting any oxygen. Finally he was rushed down to the NICU, and we were left there, alone. I called for help: my counselor, my family, the friends who were taking care of our daughter. The counselor came to be with us, and accompanied us down to the NICU when they finally said we could see our baby. He had IVs and monitors attached to every limb, his forehead, and his navel, and he was intubated. We were not allowed to touch him, had to keep our voices low: any stimulus might cause his malfunctioning fetal pathways to open up again, routing the blood around rather than through his lungs. We asked if he could be baptized, and they said yes. My counselor (who was also a pastor) got a styrofoam bowl and performed the rite. And then we were taken to a hospital room and told to get some sleep.

Those two weeks saw a gradual release from fear, as Sean slowly, miraculously recovered from his trauma; but the fear never completely left. And when, four years later, he began to have seizures, what I felt most was that we'd had him on borrowed time. He survived epilepsy just as he'd survived birth, and he's now a big, healthy 21-year-old.

I think about these births, and I don't hear lullabies, I don't see candles, I don't experience anything gentle or sentimental. These were incredibly hard times for me, and I wasn't the one going through labor. They also happened in modern hospitals with all the personnel and equipment we could ask for.

In the Nativity story, there is no mention of a midwife. There is no sterile equipment. There are not even blankets. There is straw, manure, and a hapless not-yet-husband to help. Later there are shepherds. What we have in this story is an archetypal human birth of the kind most humans experienced for countless millennia.

That is the rough beauty I'm embracing tonight. If God really is incarnate in Jesus, there is no better way for him to come into the world than in this stable, with these two clueless people. It doesn't get any more incarnational than this. As weird as it feels not to be in church tonight, the fact that it's led me to relive my own two nativity stories makes it a far more powerful experience than candlelight service could be.

Merry Christmas.

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