December 17, 2008 Length: 9:50
What gifts are you bringing to the Savior this Nativity season?
Mary and Joseph were outfitted first, in head coverings and bed sheets altered to look like robes worn in Biblical times – pretty standard fare for a Nativity reenactment, starring children. The smaller kids then gathered to claim their costumes from a pile of random sheep tails, camel ears, wire halos and sparkling wings. “Here you are, sweetheart,” said a preoccupied volunteer to my four-year-old daughter, Priscilla, who recoiled at the armful of matted brown fur being thrust in her general direction. And though she would never protest openly, the tears in her eyes spoke volumes about her longing to be anything, and I mean anything at all, but a stinky old donkey and so I quickly intervened. I grabbed everything white I could find from the diminishing mound of remnants. Three minutes later, she was beaming, smiling, not crying - relieved as all get out to be an angel.
Priscilla had been anxious the entire week prior to participate in the annual Christmas Pageant being held at Holy Trinity Cathedral. She’d wanted all of her friends and family to watch her perform upon a stage; we made sure before we left there was film in our camera. She was excited when she woke up, excited after liturgy, excited in the church basement getting ready with her fellow miniature thespians. She was excited, excited, excited until the director began with the shushing and the lining up of actors, in order of their appearance, in the hallway. All at once, then, her face contorted into a frozen expression of fear and she couldn’t, simply wouldn’t, get in place. “You can do it,” we coaxed, “It will be fine,” we promised, until it was clear that verbal encouragement was, in this case, not going to cut it. “Come with me daddy,” she begged, after everyone else had already taken their places by the manger and baby Jesus. Photos from that day depict a silent night, holy night, crammed with pint-sized wise men, bleating animals, heavenly hosts, and a 32-year-old man, my man, in a button-up dress shirt holding protectively in his arms a timid cherub.
I am sitting at my computer, fingers poised above the keyboard waiting impatiently for my molten thoughts to cool-off - become touchable, examinable, solid. As a child, I’d wake from a nightmare, grab paper and a pen and try to chase away the demons using misspelled words I’d impulsively string together to form something like an appeal, or perhaps more like a mantra describing evil being conquered by light and kindness. I wrote to name, to try and define that which was frightening, ambiguous, unfamiliar. The stack of journals in my basement, I am often tempted to burn, reveal my three-decades-old dependence on run-on sentences that smother doubt, low self-esteem with their stifling and dramatic weightiness. My attention span was short when it came to math, science, sports, music lessons, but consistently I penned my stories, my made-up songs, my angst-ridden poetry. This, this writing, was all I was ever kind of good at, or at least the only hobby that for a lifetime retained my interest.
I tried in my early twenties to imagine possible scenarios involving me pumping out brilliance O’Connor, Welty, L’Engle style, but I was so far out of their league and that distance between my own feeble skills and their timeless, breath taking capabilities, shut me down – muted me. Compared to others’ contributions mine felt flimsy and amateurish. Why create at all if I could never keep up with the best? I honestly wasn’t pouting, just merely leaving it up to the “experts” to challenge the status quo with their wit and poignancy. It wasn’t until I had nothing, nothing at all to prove, that I was drawn again to write for the therapeutic effects of it. After carrying and birthing four children, after eight years of marriage, after converting from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, I had two tons worth of emotions that needed desperately to be sorted through. I used my God-given survival tactic to find clarity and resolve within the mayhem that is motherhood. I began to pray daily via Microsoft Word.
Now, behold, here I tremble, like Priscilla, at the thought of playing a role in spreading the news of my Savior’s incarnation. News with the potential to be a balm for the broken hearted while inciting the raging fury of those opposed to Truth and its boundaries standing firm against an “anything goes” philosophy. We’re asked to offer whatever we have, guaranteeing a wide and colorful array of gifts and unique treasures to lay before the feet of Christ and His most pure Mother. By presenting my foremost passion as a sacrifice to God, I risk the disapproval of those who find my message irrelevant, redundant, predictable, offensive. I wrestle endlessly with my motives, my insecurities. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said before by individuals far more versed in the theology of the Church? I am easily discouraged from sharing the peace and redemption I’ve encountered within the Mysteries of the Faith by remembrances of my frailty, naiveté, self-centeredness.
Shepherds, lowly shepherds – unlearned, un-obvious, unable to fall back on fancy pedigrees and solid, sterling reputations to bring legitimacy to their claim that Immanuel had indeed come down to earth as an infant, were chosen, specifically, to hear first the amazing announcement and then to worship for themselves the King of Kings. Had it been scholars, Pharisees, pillars of the community whom were visited that evening by an angelic choir singing triumphantly of a God-man come to save us, I might be justified in stifling my urges to imperfectly express my thankfulness for freedom from the oppression of sin and death. But as it stands, excuses for keeping quiet, for doing nothing, centered on my ignorance and unworthiness, are pretty groundless.
Am I less than fit to represent the love of Christ in a fallen world? Oh mercy, yes – believe me! Am I exempt from trying anyway because of the probability that I’ll be ridiculed, disrespected and ultimately exposed as the fumbling, rambling novice that I am? Were the forgiven prostitutes, the tax collectors, beggars and lepers who spoke openly of their healing to anyone who would listen, more qualified than you or me to be living, dynamic witnesses of the Gospel? Maybe so, if the criteria is hope, and the acceptance that we are nothing, powerless at producing anything entirely noble, outside of God’s grace and salvific intervention. I’ve been going about this backwards, trying to fortify within myself that which should ultimately be leveled and keeping contained that which should flash, boil and spontaneously overflow with gratitude and expectation. There is much to be learned this season about humility, priorities and righteous fervor. Much to contemplate when at last we can declare:
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
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"If it weren't for AFR, I would be very, very lonely and sad this Lent. I come to work, put on the WMA stream, and get some peace. Being able to hear a Divine Liturgy means the world to me. I don't know if you and the AFR family realize how very important what you do is to some of us. It is a lifeline for me. Thank you all so very much for your ministry."