Advent Stories: O Holy Night

Helen Fessenden (1941)
James E. O’Neal (2007)

Helen in the late 1800s when she first met her husband.

HELEN: The year was 1906. Ships bobbed in the Atlantic that stormy Christmas Eve, monitoring the primitive radios that could only deliver a litany of dots and dashes, the stutter-slow letters of Morse code.

Until the charged air filled with…music. Something no one had heard before. Operators blinked in astonishment. What magic was this?

And then the deep, rich voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden introduced himself and read from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, surrounded by wires and meters and the radiating heat of the microphone, Fessenden smiled, raised a battered violin to his chin and began to play, even singing along for one verse. The strains of the beloved carol “O Holy Night” broke the silence in the first ever radio broadcast outside of a laboratory.

“O night divine” indeed.

I was there too, watching. Celebrating my husband’s achievements, even if I didn’t understand the years of technological labor it had taken to get there. I remember it like it was yesterday. My Reginald. The first broadcaster.

JAMES: The Christmas Eve Broadcast of 1906. It’s like one of those Hallmark Channel holiday movies, you know? All that was missing was an unexpected snow and George Bailey hearing the program from the bridge and deciding that life was worth living after all.

Except after months of research for the centennial, I’ve concluded that it’s all a lie. Or most of it, anyway. (more…)

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow

The older brother is the mature, responsible one, the younger carefree and reckless. That’s what everyone says.

But not in my family. One look at our family photograph, taken when my mother was still alive, and you can see at a glance: Ernest, the small, timid, logical one who preferred books to athletics. And next to him, favoring the viewer with a smile despite the photographer’s warning to the contrary, Charley, the golden boy, the ace scholar and champion sportsman…and now the Union army lieutenant.

Well, he was a lieutenant, anyway.

It’s been 25 days since we received the telegram that every family dreads. I remember that clearly because it came on December 1, the first day of Advent, the season of expectation. It sounds terrible to say, but I’d been expecting the news ever since we heard the causalities from Antietam. Our boys, our Boston-raised, tried-and-true Yankee boys cut down by the hundreds, thousands even.

But I didn’t expect Charley’s first letter, tossed on the table like an afterthought over a year ago. Father’s hands trembled as he read it. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” That’s what Charley said when he ran off to join the Union army, as if he was compelled by an irrepressible instinct and couldn’t help himself. Then he went on about duty and love of country and sacrifice.

Even then, at sixteen, I knew it’s not the son who leaves who sacrifices. It’s the one who stays.

The telegram informed my father that a reporter friend of his had chanced upon Charley among the wounded in a Virginia hospital.

Of course, Father wanted to go to the capital right away, where the worst cases were being taken. I left my classes in military engineering to go with him, battling miserable December weather to scrounge a ticket on a late-night steamboat from Fall River to Washington City.

At least the prodigal son had the decency to come home and save his father and brother the trip.

Do you know how many times I wanted to blurt that out, every hour that the swaying of the steamboat and the muttering of the other passengers kept us awake? But I didn’t, not once, because I’m the son who cares about what his words and actions do to our father.

I just moved his armchair closer to one of the lounge’s small stoves and prayed. Not that Charley would live, but that Father would. (more…)

Advent Stories: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Paris, 1966

Mother Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry)

Dr. Berry conducting in 1999.

It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.

And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.

You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.

The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.

Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.

I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.

His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying. (more…)

A Cynic’s Guide to Thanksgiving

This is for the one who dreads the magical monotony of the incoming Hallmark holiday movie season.

For the one who grouches about the blatant commercialization of the holidays every time a Black Friday ad comes on, and sometimes even when it doesn’t.

For the one who feels a compelling need to explain that the snippet of praise on the Thanksgiving place card is actually from a psalm where David is asking God to slay his enemies, and would you like to talk about the implications of that over pumpkin pie?

I am right there with you, my friends. Let’s talk.

After the hurricanes and fires and shootings these past few months, I watched a number of people post this quote from beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers.

Part of me said, “That’s lovely and a very appropriate way to direct children’s attention after a tragedy and also, seriously, Mr. Rogers rocks that sweater.”

Another part of me said, “But…that’s not enough.”

It wasn’t the part of me that scoffs during cheesy lines in movies or expects to be double-crossed in games of Risk or writes satirical song parodies. That’s more surface-level.

It was the deeper part that loves both redeemed villains and fallen heroes and finds it easier to mourn with those who mourn than rejoice with those who rejoice and marks the pages of books with a special symbol for paradoxes.

Yes, there is beauty and strength in stories about people helping each other, and I’m thankful for those who make the right choices in the face of disaster, even at great personal risk.

But I look outside at the world and inside at my own heart and know that selfishness takes the day more often than not, sometimes in terrible ways. There is more destruction than reconciliation. It’s more common for people to reach for bitterness than forgiveness. In the war of the Image against the Fall, when I look around…sin nature seems to be winning.

And Thanksgiving is coming.

Sometimes, at least to me, this time of year can seem overly sentimental. Writing out your blessings seems great for the preschool set, but the appeal can fade along with crafts like candy corn turkeys and construction paper Pilgrim hats.

When I start to think this way, I have to remember:

  • Contentment takes courage. So does faith, even the simple faith that I sometimes pretend is inferior because I don’t have it. You know what doesn’t take much risk at all? Snarky comments about the state of society. Witty takedowns and sendups of everything that’s wrong in the world. Stances on issues that make us feel superior to all those people who just don’t understand. As the dour and disapproving Anton Ego in Ratatouille put it, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” The truly brave act isn’t cynicism. It’s joy.

 

  • Stories about the Image—the ways in which humans display attributes of God, whether that’s human interest stories of sacrifice or movies about grace in the face of adversity—need to be told. They remind us of what we ought to be, sure. But maybe it’s even better that they remind us of what we sometimes fail to be, because that points us to the one who is perfectly loving and holy and just when we are not.

 

  • Paul wrote Philippians, famous for its references to joy, while he was in prison and wrote it to a church undergoing persecution and opposition. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” wasn’t written first on a rustic pallet wall decoration or a calendar of inspirational kittens, it was a solemn charge to a suffering church, as were many of the promises and exhortations of the New Testament.

 

So what do we do?

We celebrate Thanksgiving, like the saints have been, officially and unofficially, for centuries.

We collect paradoxes and adjust our expectations toward the already-not-yet reality of our world, both bitter and sweet.

But we don’t get too comfortable, because there’s a better story coming. That’s what we’re living for, and all the blessings we have here are shadows cast from that ultimate reality.

And I’m grateful.

A Suggestion for Thanksgiving Advent

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m still trying to make Thanksgiving Advent a thing, because gratitude shouldn’t be isolated to one lone day. But how does one celebrate such a countdown, you might ask?

My suggestion: write a few Thanksgiving cards. That’s what I’m doing this week, which is why this post is relatively short. I’m saving my words to tell some people in my life what I appreciate about them.

I highly recommend fun notecards, an inky pen, and a mug of cider or tea for this activity.

I’ve written about this before, so if you want the full persuasive argument for this practice, go here. Or if you want more of the emotional heart behind it, go here.

But before signing off, I want to tell a story. Two years ago, I was writing my Thanksgiving cards in an airport, surrounded by people nodding off or on their phones or anticipating narrow seats and turbulence with a look of resigned defeat on their faces. There was one older gentlemen who kept glancing my way, tattered worn like the newspaper in his hand. Eventually, he came over to me. “Excuse me,” he said, “What are you doing?”

“Writing Thanksgiving cards.”

“You mean thank-you cards?”

“No. Thanksgiving cards. Just to tell people that I appreciate them, not something in particular they did or gave me.”

“Ah,” he said, “I see. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.” And he smiled, and there have been few smiles in my life so beautiful. I almost wanted to write him a thank-you note for it, but then we started boarding and the moment was gone.

I’ll be beginning this year’s round in another airport tomorrow, with people coming and going and losing their tempers and rushing about and living for a lot of things that will end up disappointing them. I’ll eavesdrop on halfhearted conversations and be interrupted by an endless stream of rules announcements and watch the ebb and flow of thousands of people much more important than me with urgent business and exotic places to be.

And I wonder if the words I’ll write will be be more important, in the end, than all of that noise.

Maybe. Who knows? But I do know it’s a good thing. A very good thing.

 

Thankful for Loneliness…and Community

Okay, this is going to turn into a crazy Russian-doll scenario. A kind of blog-ception, so try to follow along.

In 2014, I wrote a post about Gerig Hall, a dorm on my college campus. In it, I reference a different blog post from 2012 where I decided to get to know the people who lived there, and then I go on to describe how meaningful that process was for me. It’s a roundabout love letter to people who welcomed me in, the beginning and end of that story.

At that point, I was just barely starting to get connected to my church, coming out of a pretty lonely time where I’d struggled to adjust to living in a new place without knowing anyone. If you look closely, maybe you can hear it between the lines in the 2014 post: a kind of thawing, a tired determination, a distant hope that I might find real community again.

It’s 2017. I did. It took longer than I wanted or expected, and it required me to change some of my attitudes, but recently a card that I keep in my Bible fell out and reminded me where I am now.

image

Isn’t that the best? It’s basically a construction-paper-and-marker definition of hospitality and Christian community. (Okay, maybe the door in the picture should actually be open, but I choose to interpret it as a subtle depiction of the moment just before the opening, for greater emotional resonance. #ArtAppreciation)

When I think about what I’m most thankful for this year, those “open-door” relationships come to mind: the people who have gotten close enough to let down their guard and ask hard questions and look after me. Sometimes I don’t understand the way they think or share any of their interests or agree with them on everything. Sometimes they probably think I’m a little crazy or annoying or selfish (and sometimes I am). But I love them, and our lives are open to each other, and that’s significant.

Especially among people in my stage of life, I hear lots of discussions about how deep friendships are difficult to cultivate as adults—almost impossible, depending on who you ask. I’m all for pointing out problems, but I’ve also noticed most discussions don’t offer any advice. This isn’t going to cover every scenario, but here’s what I’d add to those conversations:

  • Don’t come to a new stage of life with a cast list. By this, I mean don’t have certain roles that you’re looking to fill. Then you’ll spend all your time scanning your acquaintances to see who can be “the new [insert name here],” expecting conversations to follow a script, and being disappointed when someone who you’re sure should be in your life by now misses a cue. Of course, you’d never put it that way, but it sometimes happens sneakily. It did to me. Here’s what I learned: people will always disappoint you when they’re trying to live up to roles they didn’t know they were auditioning for. It’s a limiting and frustrating way to live.

 

  • Relationships may not look like what you think they will. For example, maybe you’re dreaming of a mentor who will invite you weekly to a cozy coffee shop and ask to hear all about your life and give wise advice for all your struggles. Okay, but what if instead mentorship looks like getting in snatches of great conversation while helping a church member paint a garage? Or watching how people you admire discipline their children? Or having a friend who sends you occasional texts of encouragement? You’re still growing, but sometimes that requires becoming part of people’s already-in-progress lives wherever you can instead of clinging to an Instagram-able ideal of what your relationships should look like.

 

  • You may have to be the first to move. Sometimes, you have to invite people over or follow-up on an invitation to “hang out sometime” or start serving in a ministry or introduce yourself. This was hard for me for a while. I occasionally need to be reassured that I matter—that people actually want to spend time with me—and if I’m the one doing most of the seeking others out in my friendships, I can start to wonder and worry. But again…I realized that’s self-focused. Obviously, figure out who is actually interested in investing time in your life, but you might need to take the lead on gathering people who you want to get to know.

 

Basically, if you want more open-door relationships…try to be that sort of person for others. It’s hard and risky…and also beautiful, as so many things worth doing are.

For those still waiting for an end to their loneliness, I hope this isn’t discouraging, like I’m giving you a list of extra things to do when you barely have the emotional energy to show up. I’ve been there. I get it. That’s not what this was meant to be.

It’s a reminder to you to hold on, and where you can, knock on doors if they’re not yet open.

To be honest, I’m thankful for that season of loneliness now, because I learned things in it that I couldn’t have learned any other way (because I’m absurdly stubborn). But I’m thankful for community too.

We’re called to love, and that love gets involved in others’ lives. It sets aside preconceived ideas and learns and asks questions and volunteers for the hard things and doesn’t give up easily.

In a generation of drifters, let’s stay. Because only in staying—only in a long, everyday sort of faithfulness—can we really see what God’s up to and get to the end of the story.

When Life is Hard…Be Thankful

Some of you, seeing the title of this blog, are saying, “It’s October, Amy, you can’t talk about Thanksgiving yet.”

To which I say, Oh yeah? Stores have Christmas decorations out already, and you’ve probably consumed a food or beverage product related to pumpkin within the last 24 hours (clearly a reference to the bountiful harvest and pies of the Pilgrims). By the authority not really vested in me, I declare this season Gratitude Advent. We’ve only got five Mondays before the official celebration of Thanksgiving, and I’m going to argue that we should take a little more time to think about the blessings in our life outside of one food-loaded day.

So, sit down and join me for Storytime with Amy.

I was seventeen, trapped in one of those terrible classes where “toxic” was more than the smell of Axe body spray and gym socks. It was bad. Nearly everyone gossiped and complained and bragged like they were trying to distill all high school stereotypes into a one-hour extravaganza of noise and misery.

Oh wait, Disney already did that…

It didn’t take long for me to reach a familiar moment. I call it the Point of No. (Not the Point of No Return, just No. Sometimes there’s nothing worth returning to.) The Point of No is when I decide the crowd is stupid, so it would be a terrible idea to go along with it.

So I gathered three allies before class one morning. “Starting today,” I said in a conspiratorial tone, “we are going to be happy.” (more…)