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Chaplaincy

Tuesday, First Week of Advent
December 1, 2009
World AIDS Day

"The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."
-- Psalm 51:17


A Broken Star

My mother, my grandmother, and both my sisters love Christmas music, and it is a family tradition that such music (which gets annoying for the male end of the family around July or so) can only be played between Thanksgiving and Epiphany. So on Thanksgiving, just after we'd finished our gut-busting meal, my mother turned on James Taylor's Christmas CD and we stood back and looked at the house a moment.
 
Then we proceeded to tear it apart.
 
You see, the other Thanksgiving tradition in my family is Christmas decorating. The inside of the house is festooned with wreaths and mistletoe and strands of colored beads. We set up the manger scene, and my grandmother hides the baby Jesus until Christmas morning. We designate an area to pile gifts. Finally, we go outside and decorate the tree.
 
I have lived in five different locations that I can remember, but they all had a pine tree nearby, and my family has always used an outdoor tree, allowing us to be sustainable and also keep our decorations up from Thanksgiving until Epiphany. In addition, our earlier homes were apartments, and the landlords frowned on large flammable objects being moved inside the house and wrapped in electric cords. This Christmas, we set up ladders and attacked the tree with our traditional military efficiency when setting up the lights, and then proceeded to set out our plethora of ornaments -- largely handmade and, of course, weather-resistant.
 
Finally, we got to the crowning moment. We took the glass star out of its box and I climbed the tallest ladder to the top of the tree. All the lights were already on. I attached the star and -- nothing. I took it back off and looked at it. The insides were mangled. We went back inside, but I took the star with me, unwilling to let it go. My mind drifted back over the years and settled on when I was five years old.
 
That was the first Christms I can remember what I asked Santa for. The previous Christmas, my household had been shattered; my sister Grace had stopped walking and talking and was screaming constantly. Eventually, she was diagnosed with autism, but that was a year filled with fear, a fear that had begun at Christmas. That Christmas when I was five, I wanted something our whole family, even Grace, could enjoy, something that would be a defense and a light against the terror and the darkness I felt. I didn?t ask for toys or books.
 
I asked for a star.
 
In some ways, I reflected as I looked at the broken pieces of machinery inside the glass panels, it was the best thing I ever did. It was a selfless act, truly selfless the way only a child's can be. The star had always been there, every Christmas since the first, guarding our family and lighting our way. In some ways, I thought, it symbolized everything that was good about me. Meanwhile, my requests had become -- predictably -- more self-centered, more typical. Like everyone, I lost that childhood innocence. I did things that child would never have considered doing, both good and bad, and while I grew tremendously, I was in some way compromised and sullied by the world.
 
Now the star was broken. It was as good a time as any to reflect on a central question: as I prepared to leave college and seek my path in the wider world, had I, too, become broken? Had I lost the light, the ideals, the sense of right and wrong and the selflessness that characterized my childhood and made me successful? Not a day went by, I realized, when I didn?t avoid responsibility for something, tell a 'white lie,' or cheat my truest ideals. Some of that might be maturity, just as the glass in the panels of the star had faded and darkened over the years, but was I fundamentally broken?
 
As I thought, I worked. Slowly, carefully, I untangled the wires and sockets inside the star. I summoned an image of how it had looked before and put things back the best I could. Finally, late in the evening, my family and I went outside. Once again, I climbed the highest ladder, said a prayer, and plugged in the star. This time it shone, shining a familiar gleam that brought tears to my eyes. The Christmas season had started.
 
Perhaps I've made too much out of the inevitable difficulties with any piece of electronics exposed to wind and weather for seventeen years. But I think there is more to the story. Just because we are older doesn't mean we have to give up the guiding lights that brought us here. If we take time, if we remember what our souls and our consciences used to look like and, patiently and assiduously, we try to make our lives today reflect the reality of our younger years, and if -- when we have done all we can -- we say a prayer and ask for God's help -- maybe we can shine again, no matter how broken we appear to be.
 
-- Elijah T. LaChance ?10