An Unexpected Story

I’ve been thinking lately about the one and only white Christmas I have ever experienced: 1997, Winter Park, Colorado, during a season of record-breaking snowfall. For this Florida boy, Colorado at Christmas was a strange, exciting new world: skiing, snowmobiling, hot chocolate in front of the fire, snowball fights with my siblings, watching a thermometer dip below zero for the first time in my life.

What I didn’t fully grasp at the time—what I, a 10-year-old boy, had no way of comprehending—was that this trip was not just for the fun of it. My mom did not randomly decide to fly across the country with her five children and celebrate Christmas in an unfamiliar place. It was an act of desperation, a fear of confronting the first Christmas in which our father would be out of the house.

After losses and separations, the firsts are usually the hardest: the first birthday of a deceased parent, the first anniversary spent alone, the first Christmas after a divorce. When my dad left, my mom knew that nothing would be the same—Who would sit in his chair? Who would read The Night Before Christmas?—and spending Christmas at home while pretending everything was normal was too much to bear. So we fled to Colorado and distracted ourselves with snowballs and ski lifts and freezing temperatures.

* * *

I’ve been thinking, too, about the magi who followed a star across a desert to welcome a newborn king. Was he everything they were hoping for? Was it worth the journey? I imagine them trekking the long way home, facing the questions that were waiting when they got back. Did they ever wonder if anything had really changed?

Then there are the shepherds, witness to a heavenly spectacle and angelic proclamations that have been told and retold in stories and songs. What happened a night later, a week later, a year later, when the skies were silent and everything was as it had always been? Where did the angels go?

And what about us? We move through Advent with prayers for injustice and liturgies of anticipation, and on Christmas we remember the pregnant teenager who bore the hope of the world, but then what? Has anything really changed?

Soon we’ll toast the new year, and then back to work, back to school, back to the headlines brimming with fear and hate. Jesus has been born, and still we oppress and villainize the other. Still we stoop to violence. Still we feel the pain of loss and loneliness. The star that leads the way, the host of angels, the baby Immanuel—did we make it all up?

* * *

A few weeks ago, I sat in the final session of Memoir as Art & Spiritual Practice as we took turns reading out loud our personal essays. It was the last class of a busy term, the culmination of months of wrestling with big ideas and bigger questions. We read stories about family and pain and life and faith. They were funny, sad, angry, and, all of them, beautiful. It felt a little like church: the Christmas cookie communion, the liturgy of stories, the call to listen and be moved.

There was something profound about wrapping ourselves in those words, stepping into someone else’s world and seeing, for just a few minutes, from each other’s perspectives. Isn’t that part of why we talk so much about stories at this school? Isn’t that why we sit through the insanity of Practicum and subject ourselves to hours upon hours of therapy? We believe that telling meaningful stories is a way to counter trauma and brokenness. And we believe that by listening to stories, immersing ourselves in the heartaches and longings of another, we can offer something of goodness and truth.

I don’t know what the magi were thinking as they crossed the desert toward home, nor the shepherds after they went back to their flocks. But I imagine that they found themselves telling the story again and again, each time like something new. And I imagine that the scandal of the story, the notion of God stepping into human experience through the vulnerability of an infant, made them want to be a little more vulnerable and compassionate themselves.

I don’t know, either, where you find yourself after Christmas. For many of us, it’s a time in which we are acutely aware of our wounds—and of our tendency to distract ourselves. So maybe, even though December 25 is passed, we can tell ourselves the story of the unexpected baby one more time.

And then let’s follow that story’s example, setting aside our own power and privilege so that we can enter the worlds of others. Let’s listen to their stories, mourning and celebrating with them, defying the systems that tell us some stories matter more than others and some people deserve more than others. And let’s tell good stories, stories that are true and deep and full of hope, stories that point back to the pregnant teenager and the baby and the God who rescues.


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