By Terri Mork Speirs
To me it was a tabletop Advent wreath, four points for four candles representing four weeks of waiting for Christmas. To my 7-year-old son, it was an all-star wrestling stage and he needed contestants.
Enter the nativity set.
But first let me back up. It was early December eight years ago, and our apartment was decorated for the season. A tree, an Advent wreath, and a “Jesus set with angels” as my son called it, a crèche. The crèche was marketed as a “Highly durable!” play set, wooden figurines painted in primary colors. My son loved to arrange and rearrange the menagerie of 2-inch characters. Every morning before school, he’d splay belly-flat-down on the living room floor, playing with the figurines in all sorts of scenarios and configurations. But before leaving for school he always returned the set to its original alignment, exactly the way it was portrayed on the box – a gathering of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, barn animals, distant kings and angels all gazing at the baby Jesus. Wooden palm trees, star in sky, and all.
One morning as my son reordered the nativity characters I took a try at theology-mom, suggesting we remove the Jesus toy until Christmas morning. “Because it’s still Advent,” I said. “And we’re actually still waiting for baby Jesus.” Furthermore, I suggested we place the baby figurine near the Advent wreath to link the idea of waiting with the season of Advent. I felt oh so clever. I’d gotten the idea from the elaborate yard and window decorations I’d seen in Brooklyn, N.Y., where my husband, Bob, is from. The tradition there is to set up the crèche structure sans Jesus, inserting the baby piece on Christmas Eve and never before. What a concrete way to explain the season of Advent to a second grader, I thought.
And so we removed the baby figurine from the nativity and put it in the Advent wreath for the symbolism. (In hindsight, I realize this was shaky on both metaphoric and parental levels. I’m not sure what exactly I was trying to convey to my son. Actually it sounds pretty ridiculous to me now, but please, stay with me.)
Jesus figurine. Advent wreath. Seven-year-old kid.
I saw a clever lesson.
My son saw an all-star wrestling arena.
(We would find out later that he’d been watching “Friday Night Smack Down” at the neighbor’s apartment down the hall on a weekly basis.) The four points of the square-shaped Advent wreath made for an excellent fight stage. The characters in the “Highly durable!” nativity set made for viable competitors.
He chose one figurine for each of the four corners. His choices seemed random to me – Mary in corner one, Joseph corner two, a shepherd in three, a king in four. Or some such ordering. Maybe it was different every morning, but knowing my son as I do now, he probably lined it up the same way every day. Once positioned, there was a pause as if for drama – then the wooden blocks would combust into a grand brawl, my son’s hands furiously clacking pieces about like an animated cartoon rumpus.
Kapow! Smash! Bang!
At the time his dad (aka my husband, Bob) lay motionless a few feet from the tiny thunder dome. He was critically ill with medication-induced liver failure. Severely anorectic and jaundiced, his frame was as skinny as a prison camp survivor, his eyes yellow as egg-yolks. Virtually comatose, Bob arose only when bouts of brutal itching erupted, causing him to scratch until he bled. We lived in a small apartment, and we learned to live the daily routines with a deteriorating man in our midst. A dying elephant in the room. I’d tried to explain Advent to my second grader, but I hadn’t explained what was happening to his dad. Probably because I couldn’t. The illness came on so fast it blindsided me. As my son’s imaginary fight club ensued, I couldn’t help but think about the real wrestling match I was having.
If the doctors couldn’t heal Bob, why couldn’t God?
If Bob was to die soon, why did there have to be so much fleshy torment?
And in the most cliché of all wrestled questions: Why do people suffer?
My son tussled with the wooden play set every morning until Christmas that year. The wrestling would only last a few minutes before he returned all figurines to their proper place, precisely as depicted on the box, with the exception of Jesus who stayed with the Advent wreath. Then he would go to school.
I’m probably trying too hard to put meaning into my son’s invented game. Maybe he just wanted to play. Maybe he wasn’t wrestling anything metaphorically. Maybe it was just me. But since that time, I’ve changed. I no longer ask questions about God and suffering. I’ve come to believe that the answers lie in us, in all our messy mortality and humanity, in the way we treat each other and the societal systems we create. It’s up to us to make it a better world. “Be the change,” as the slogan goes.
These days I wrestle with other questions. Not so much why questions, but how questions. How can we listen to one another without erupting into anger? How can we listen to one another without walking away? How can we convey frustration through sincere conversation instead of sarcastic memes on social media? How can we really understand what life is like for other people?
My son is now 15, and our current Advent wreath (photo, at right) looks different. Instead of a four-point candle holder/wrestling arena, it’s a set of pillar candles in glass that we decorated in colors representing the four cities we’ve lived in since he was born – New York City, Baltimore, St. Paul and Des Moines. It was his idea for a ninth-grade confirmation project, prompted by our artistic youth director. Recently, I asked him if he remembered the year he transformed the Advent wreath into a simulated smack-down. He did not.
According to our Advent wreath, we are at week two of the annual telling of a 2,000-year-old narrative. The story is always the same. You’d think the world would be different from way back then, but it could have happened today. A child, homeless, illegal and poor, born to refugee parents who don’t belong anywhere. Born in the rhetoric of hate and judgment. Born to turn things around, preaching the first shall be last, teaching to forgive to infinity. Siding always with the sick, imprisoned and vulnerable. Calling us to do the same.
Maybe my questions will never be answered but instead turn into different questions. Advent candles glow through the colored opaque glass my son designed. As I write this, two flames flicker. I can’t speak for him, but I wait and wrestle.
Terri Mork Speirs is a writer and mother as well as a grant writer for Children & Families of Iowa.