“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices / For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. . . .” — Placide Cappeau, “O Holy Night” (1847)
This photo is classic. Look at her—look at that three-month-old, perched in peril on Santa’s knee. What a face! There’s something in it that begs of Mom and Dad What are you doing to me?!, while simultaneously—with the help of early 90s technological failings—threatening St. Nick, Back off, bucky, or I’ll fry you with my laser vision! There’s fear and defiance in that pudgy mug. Perhaps a touch of melancholy, too, and a gravity that far exceeds the child’s tender age.
Or maybe she was just hungry. Who knows?
I realize it’s unwise to read too much into twenty-six-year-old photographs, but I also know a thing or two about that baby.
I know, for instance, that she’s her parents’ second child, and so her mom and dad weren’t quite novices but were still experimenting a bit. I know doctors had worried about the size of her giant head, the murmur in her heart, and a handful of other oddities (including infant acne—talk about a bad omen) when she was born. That must’ve put her parents on edge, and she didn’t do much to ease their concerns. In fact, she exacerbated them a bit by taking too long to smile.
Babies can smile by reflex from the get-go, but the conscious smile—the intentional one, or the one that plays along with Peek-A-Boo and other stimuli—starts coming when the kid is six- to twelve-weeks-old. And that matters a lot. Baby smiles are not only adorable, but a sign of cognitive development, so parents must monitor their new infants and work hard to foster the kinds of learning babies need in order to master new cognitive processes.
But the baby in this picture didn’t smile until somewhere in her third month—possibly not until days or weeks after the photo was taken. Surely her parents, whose first child had smiled much more easily and much earlier, surely they wondered a bit. And watched. And maybe worried.
Elisabeth tried to focus on her sewing, but she hadn’t had much control over thoughts and emotions the past six months, and with Mary due to arrive any minute now, her mind raced down paths she’d tried to barricade. Her heart was conflicted. On the one hand, she’d welcomed Mary’s message—shock announcement and all—for the promise of company. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to. Confinement is hard—every woman said so—but harder still when you can’t even chat with your sweetheart just right when you need him the most, just right when you’re thrilled and sick and scared and overwhelmed by grace and muddled by doubts. Women need to talk those kinds of things out, but for whatever reason—still not wholly clear to Elisabeth—her husband had lost his voice at the temple and it hadn’t come back ever since. Just right when the miracle happened. Boy, she could’ve used her husband’s soothing wisdom during that rough first trimester.
So yeah, Elisabeth reminded herself, she was excited to see Mary, and yeah, it’d be nice to have a conversation again. But –
She sighed and put down her stitching.
“Father, I’m sorry. It doesn’t make sense,” she whispered, rubbing her forehead with her fingertips. “I have nothing to envy anymore, and, well, it’s not envy. It’s . . . hurt.” She glanced out the window to see whether the caravan was in sight yet. Nothing on the road.
“It’s just—she won’t get it. She can’t get it. You set a different life for her, and she’ll bounce in here, chipper as ever, and want to be all excited about how great it is that we’re both pregnant, and our kids can be friends, and she’ll bubble about it, and so on and so on, and . . . and I just don’t know if I can handle that kind of effervescence right now.” She craned her neck to face the ceiling and bit her lip before going on.
“I need someone who gets it, You know? Someone who knows why this is a little more solemn to me. Someone who understands where I’m coming from—the pain, the reproach, all those years of months of throbbing shock-red reminders that my womb and my dreams were as empty as ever. Someone who realizes how heavy it was when You kept the desire burning scars in my heart when I didn’t want it anymore, when it hurt too much to want it anymore, when I actually begged You to take Your promise out of me before it destroyed my capacity for hope.”
Tears blurred Elisabeth’s vision just as she saw the company approaching. She scrambled to compose herself, smudging away the water at her eyes, adjusting her headscarf, smoothing her dress. She put her stitching back on the shelf, but then leaned for a moment to finish her prayer.
“God, just give me something. Get me through this. I don’t want to think badly of her, or to be jealous that You made it so easy for some while women like me had to suffer a bit more. You’re doing something here, I can sense it. There’s more to all this than I comprehend. Change my heart, Father,” Elisabeth heard the front gate open, and she heard light footsteps patter along the path—Mary’s gait.
“Father,” Elisabeth walked toward the door, “I trust You. Teach me. Give me something.”
She paused at the entryway and listened as Mary approached the door. Before the young girl had even reached the steps, Mary could no longer contain her excitement, so she sang out her cousin’s name.
Elisabeth jolted, placed her hand on her swollen belly, and swam for a moment in the warmth of the Spirit. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks as she opened the door and shouted the words God pressed into her heart.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the baby in the picture with Santa is me. I’m the smiling late-bloomer. Even right to this day my face naturally projects a grim/worried/angry expression, though more often than not, when friends and classmates ask me what’s wrong, the answer’s nothing and I mean it.
Knowing that about my face, I understand that the photo with Santa is not necessarily revealing; there’s really no special depth to my mien. But there’s one other detail about three-month-old Greer that affects how I view that picture—and how I view an awful lot else in life too.
Not long before Dad snapped the shot shown above, he stood surrounded by several other men, mostly uncles and neighbors, at the front of our local church meetinghouse. Dad cradled me while performing my first Mormon rite—a baby blessing, where Priesthood promises trickle from heaven onto a newborn to give insights and hopes for her life. Although there’s no set outline these blessings must follow, they generally fit a standard form. There’s the reminder that the child came from God, and the promise of breathtaking potential. There’s the section about living the Gospel and growing in Spirit, and there’s almost always a sentence or two about missions or marriage.
For obvious reasons, I do not recall receiving my baby blessing from Dad, though Mom has told me a bit about it. She can’t recite many of the words of the prayer—they’re written down who-knows-where in one of her old journals—but she remembers one phrase that stunned and upset her, that made her want to interrupt in protest. Uncharacteristic to traditional baby blessings, mine—voiced by my father—insisted, Greer, you will learn to deal well with disappointments.
“Excuse me?” Maternal instincts shot through my mother. “Who’s going to disappoint my baby?!”
It’s funny to hear her tell the story. Mom’s still got a mother bear locked inside her, and I’ve seen it lurk behind her glance when she’s learned of the disappointments I’ve faced through school, job hunts, my mission, and that mess that was my dating life (may it rest in peace). Though I’m grown now, I think Mom still hopes to shield me from pain. And she knows that—in spite of Dad’s Priesthood promise to me—I haven’t yet mastered the patience it takes to face disappointments without fear, anger, guilt.
So when I look at that picture of baby me next to Santa, I can’t help but see the face of a child facing long years of letdowns.
The donkey didn’t need much guidance, but Joseph kept hold of the reins so he’d have something to dig his fingernails into. Fractured thoughts filled the front of his mind, and he had a headache.
They’d all turned them down.
There would be lots of blood when it happened. . . .
Had he brought enough for the taxes?
Had he earned enough for the taxes?
He should heat the knife over fire before slicing the cord—he’d seen the midwife do that when his sister gave birth.
If he couldn’t even get a room, could he really provide for a family?
He’d need to bring in fresh hay to clean up all the blood. . . .
Joseph sighed and told Mary they were almost at the stable. She nodded, and Joseph tried not to notice the pain on her face. He’d prayed all night for the Lord to guide him to shelter. “And nothing,” he thought. “Nothing.”
A pause. “I’m not asking for another angel, God,” he turned his thoughts into prayer, “just a place for Mary and our—her—Your—. . . the baby.”
Another sigh, this one frustrated. “This isn’t the marriage I dreamed of, Father, but I went with it. I trusted You. I did what You said and I never looked back. So where are You, then? Eh? Why have You left us with nowhere to go, and barely enough to get by on? What have I done to incur Your displeasure? To warrant this deprivation? To bring it even on the head of the wife that You gave me—You insisted I take? Or is it. . . .
“—Or is this part of it too?” Joseph recalled the dream, the last time he’d really felt sure God was with him. The last time he’d felt heard.
The stable entrance was even smaller than Joseph thought it would be, so he almost passed by, lost in thought. He helped Mary dismount, got her settled on a stack of hay, then excused himself to fetch water. “Oh Father, I’m frightened,” Joseph whispered as he filled a pail at the stream. “Be with us again. Be with her. Don’t forsake us.” As he stood, Joseph glimpsed a star, and he felt warm for a moment. He closed his eyes. Listened. Walked back to the stall to prepare for the birth.
The thing that really gets me about disappointment is that it isn’t just tied to the big things. I think we humans could muster more strength to endure the cancers and miscarriages and house fires and divorces and infertility and disenfranchisement and layoffs and deaths if those were the only types of disappointments life could spit at us, and if we could face them just one at a time.
But the large-scale disappointments never play without constant, smaller-scale accompaniment: car trouble, power outages, bad hair days, stupid things you said that you can’t take back, common colds, high rent prices, zestless months, loneliness, failed tests, grad school rejections, misunderstandings, Seasonal Affective Disorder, stolen wallets, dead-end jobs, and the list could go on.
The persistent dings and scratches we incur over long months of small disappointments sap our energy, and weaken us when we need strength to face the big trials of life.
We’re too weary.
I know many good souls who are braving the disappointments I listed above; I didn’t choose words at random. I could spell out my own too, except that some of them sting too much to commit to typeface, and others are awkwardly personal, and still others make me ashamed of the selfish jerk I must be to whine about any dissatisfaction in one heck of a good life.
But conversations can change people in wondrous ways, as a recent chain of conversations has changed me. As I’ve talked to the people I love whose lives are embedded in the words I selected about disappointments, I think I’ve stumbled onto something theologians might call hermeneutics—the lens through which folks read things, especially scripture.
Maybe it’s because Christmas comes just after the close of my first semester of theological studies. Or maybe it’s the knot of disappointment and thrill that 2016 has been. Or maybe it’s inspiration. Who knows?
But this year I’m reading the Christmas Story like I’ve never read it before—like I’ve never needed to read it til now.
He snatched up his staff and the lamb that couldn’t yet run and he bolted down the hillside to keep up with his brothers. He still sensed the flash of light each time he blinked, and the glorias still rang in his ears. But he couldn’t quite swallow the message.
“I mean, that’s fine and all,” his mind touched heaven, “You can do it however You please. But—beg pardon—a baby’s not gonna be of much help with the Romans.”
He panted as he ran. “And in a manger? What kind of Messiah is this?”
As a child he had loved to eavesdrop as his father talked politics with the older shepherds, and he’d grown especially fond of their colorful depictions of Mashiach—the Warrior Who’d sweep away a hundred centurions at a single blow, Who’d restore the Promised Land to the Chosen People. As a kid, he lived for stories like this, and had hoped to stick around long enough to see it all pan out.
Then a quiet night sky split and angels appeared and they said Mashiach was just down the hill, run to greet Him.
“But a baby, Father—and a poor one at that. Not even born in a proper house or anything,” he marveled. It t didn’t make sense. How could someone as poor as he and his fellow shepherds pack the kind of punch the Israelites needed the Messiah to bring?
The picture he’d clung to—his precious mental image—didn’t want to make room for this new proposition. His head swam with doubts.
But his heart beat, and not from the running. His hands shook, his knees buckled, his spine tingled. He ran faster than ever, drawn toward Bethlehem, toward the manger, toward the star that glimmered against darkness.
Jesus didn’t make His advent to a bunch of quaint actors in Israelite garb, standing stiff in a stable awaiting their scene. Too often that’s how we portray it, though. Mild-mannered Mary with confidence gleaming in her beautiful eyes, brave Joseph with no spoken lines, Elisabeth’s humility, shepherds’ awe, Simeon and Anna and all of the rest in their stately calm precise motions in just the right places at just the right times. Sure, things were hard, we concede. Who’d want to give birth in a smelly old stall? But beyond a few external discomforts, we envision the Nativity as rigid as the wooden replicas on our mantles.
Makes for a nice church pageant. But no one lives on a stage with a towel tied on his head.
The Christmas Story is a history of disappointed, weak, weary humans who forged ahead in spite of very real questions and very real hurts. And that matters. We’re meant to observe disappointment at the turn of each page in Luke 2; it’s there just for us.
After all, the Baby we celebrate was not just a Wonderful Counselor, but a Man of Sorrows Acquainted with Grief, although we hide our faces from that when we stiffen Him (Isaiah 53:3). The whole reason He came was to address disappointments—the large and the small—because they’re the pockmarks of Fallenness, and we can’t smooth them out on our own. I love the scripture that explains that Christ suffered “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” and all of this so that “He may know how according to the flesh how to succor His people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12).
That means He gets it—and viscerally. He’s felt the sinking stomach, the raw heart, the tight throat of disappointments.
And those closest to Him knew those kinds of pains too.
Just like those closest to us.
This year I choose to read the Christmas Story through the hermeneutics of disappointment, because I know too many people who are adjusting to life plans against what they chose for themselves, and too many people who are questioning their faith because a mental image doesn’t match with new knowledge, and too many people who are just plumb tuckered out with the dinging and scratching of letdowns.
The Christmas Story is for women convinced that they’ll never give birth, and for husbands unsure how to proceed, and for folks on political fringes. It reminds us that angels split skies, but it also reminds us that even shepherds can bring heavenly tidings of joy. And it reminds us that stars can shine out against pitch.
It will yet be years before I make good on God’s counsel to learn to deal well with disappointments, but in the meantime, friends, thanks for showing what it looks like to forge ahead in spite of the pits in your bellies, in spite of the holes in your hearts. It’s wearisome, yes.
But that’s just when Hope thrills.