I am delighted to feature another in this series of Advent essays by Steve Bell, a gifted singer, songwriter, musician, and writer. Here he reflects on his discomfort with Christmas – as for me, I certainly recognize the way that false cheer can paper over the reality of loss and sadness that we need to recognize and express before we can find joy. His clear-eyed look into darkness led to the song that is the title track for Keening for the Dawn. You can buy the CD here (and you should!) Here you can also read the account of how the album Keening for the Dawn came to be.
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It’s Complicated – by Steve Bell
Last fall I noticed a growing disturbance in my own soul and quickly recognized it as my recurring dread of the coming Christmas season.
My childhood memories are not all sugary. When I was in my eighth summer, my mother suddenly collapsed under a debilitating depression accompanied by severe anxiety. She was whisked away to a hospital 80 miles away and I didn’t see her again till she came home briefly for Christmas that same year. When she did return for the holiday, she sat huddled and frail in a corner, returning only weak and weary smiles whenever we tried to engage her. It was a confusing time. I adored (and adore) my mom but was too young to understand the complexity of her illness. I wasn’t too young however, to recognize the deep sadness in my father’s eyes or to feel it in my own spirit. The ironic contrast of my mother’s frail, miserable form against the tinsel and glitter of our festive Christmas tree was certainly not lost on me. Nor did I fail to realize the impotence of the limp platitudes and bible verses that well-meaning Christians piously lobbed at my vulnerable mom .
Around the same time, my father left his job as a local pastor and went to work as the protestant chaplain at Drumheller prison in Alberta. In an unexpected way, it was a good thing for us. Whereas Mom’s illness was difficult for church-folk to accept (good Christians, especially pastors’ wives, don’t get depressed) the inmates had no problem with her whatsoever. “Come hang with the rest of us losers” was the unstated, but clear and sincere invitation. Ironically, a prison was a safe place for my mom to be unwell. Practically though, this meant (for us kids) that every Christmas, shortly after opening our presents we had to leave our treasures on the living room floor and accompany Mom and Dad to the federal prison to lead a Christmas service for the wretched souls who weren’t able to get a day-pass for the holiday, and whom no-one came to visit. I always dreaded going initially, but was always deeply moved and glad to have gone. It seemed to really matter. Our family was quite musical and I distinctly remember my sisters and I singing for the inmates who sat stooped in their chairs, heads buried in their hands, shoulders quivering with tears splashing on the floor. Ironically, the mystery of deep regret, grief and loss first presented itself to me on Christmas Day.
Much later, in the early 90s I travelled to India where I spent ten days in the north singing at a retreat for indigenous Catholic priests. Being the son of a Baptist minister, I was a bit out of my element but it remains one of the formational experiences of my life. It happened to be mid-December and before returning home, I had to stay over in Calcutta for several days before I could catch a flight home. I had never before experienced anything like the extreme poverty and human suffering I witnessed there. Out on the streets – stepping over the sleeping bodies of whole families huddled together to keep warm on the sidewalk, being accosted by the multitude of desolate beggars, experiencing the disparity between this world of grinding poverty and the gated, luxury hotel compound in which I was staying – I had a break-down of my own and spent the final 24 hours in a fetal position on my bathroom floor clutching at my stomach, feeling like I had ingested acid.
Having forgotten it was Christmas, I eventually boarded the plane home to find it decorated with silvery garlands and shinywords of cheer. It took everything I had to resist running through the plane and tearing the tinsel down.
Certainly I have many, many wonderful life memories attached to the Christmas season as well. But for me, it’s complicated, and it is no surprise to me that each year I find myself keening for a better dawn, deeply dissatisfied with things as they are, and cynical that our brokenness can be repaired by mere religious platitudes (Jesus is the Reason for the Season!). We have “had the experience, but missed the meaning.” All this makes our culture’s relentless trivialization of the tradition seem almost unbearably bizarre.
It is no accident that the ancient church, in her wisdom, placed the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen on the 26th of December (a small liturgical fact somewhat obliterated from our consciousness by the incredible sales on Boxing Day) and the Feast of the Holy Innocents (the massacre of the children by Herod’s decree) two days later. The season really is complicated.
And so, recently while in conversation with friends, I heard the word “keening” used. I was only remotely familiar with the word but it seared me like a hot knife and haunted me for the rest of the day. Later that night the following verse bubbled up, and I knew it was time to face this season head on.
On and on the night goes on
Brooding dark before the dawn
We are waiting
Wearied lips rehearse our creeds
Bellies swollen with your seed
We are waiting
Hardened shards of broken bread
Small consolations in your stead
Soured wine a tonic for the pain
Dutifully we take our fill
Still, we long to see Your face again
Keening for the dawn as such
Stirs the memory of your touch
We are waiting
We are waiting
(for complete lyrics, and to listen to the song, visit http://keening.stevebell.com)