Post Author: Sara Nave Fisher
I met my husband 15 years ago this Christmas, with all the trappings of a holiday romance movie: the snow was gently falling, he was in his new Army dress uniform, we talked for hours from the evening of Christmas Eve to the dawn of Christmas Day. I, young and feeling in love, went out and bought a Christmas ornament to commemorate such a lovely meet-cute. Ever since, we’ve had a tradition of buying an annual ornament; our collection is full of reminders of the churches we’ve served, the states we’ve lived in, and milestones we’ve reached as a family.
But there was one year, several years ago, when things were… not good. Our family was strong, but we were in the midst of both professional and personal chaos. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t in any mood to purchase a special ornament to commemorate it.
So I didn’t.
It came up in conversation a few times that season; my husband and I were very aware there was no new ornament, and we were okay with that.
But then, a few days after Christmas, we were at Target and saw a big clearance bin of ornaments, clearly the remnants of decorations that no one wanted during the season. I mean, ZERO PEOPLE wanted them. They were all damaged and hideous.
Then I saw it: The Bird.
It was oversized and brightly colored — very different from the delicate gold-trimmed ornaments we usually chose. It was crushed from having been pushed repeatedly to the bottom of the bin and was missing a sewn-on eye, a bare thread in its place. The tail was coming unglued and there was inexplicably some sort of plastic fish hook attached to its head.
And it was also 90% off. That thing cost thirty-nine cents.
I held it up to my husband: THIS IS IT. THIS IS OUR ORNAMENT FOR THIS YEAR. THIS BIRD THAT IS THIRTY-NINE CENTS AND MISSING AN EYE.
So we took it home and added it to the tree, talking about how difficult that year had been and what our hopes were for the coming year.
Every year since, as we decorate the Christmas tree, we retell the story of each ornament to our kids. And every year, we recount those struggles, smiling at the symbolism of this ugly bird on our tree that serves as a reminder of the year that didn’t destroy us.
In the book of 1 Samuel, the Israelites had been worshiping idols and rebelling against God. Under Samuel’s leadership, they turned toward God… then are attacked by an enemy. With God’s help, they are victorious, and Samuel builds a monument out of stones and names it Ebenezer, or, literally, “Stone of Help.” This symbolized God’s faithfulness, so that in the future when they started to doubt, they could look back on this Ebenezer and remember that God was faithful then, and surely God will be faithful now. An Ebenezer has since been known as a monument of thanksgiving to God, echoed in the hymn line:
“Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’ve come…”
I’ve found that in ministry it’s pretty easy for us to “raise Ebenezers” to acknowledge joyful milestones: We put plaques on the wall with the names of lay and ordained leaders; we hold liturgical celebrations throughout the year; we give thanks for new members, new weddings, and new babies.
But it’s just as important, I think, to remember the times that everything wasn’t great, and yet God was faithful. In our churches, communities, and homes, there are people who are, today, experiencing real pain. Suffering comes at us in different forms and for different reasons, but it all hurts. At Christmastime, it’s often hard to name that because we are so inundated with jingle bells and seasonal romance movies and commercials with big red bows. We’re expected to be generous and joyful, but it’s often hard to feel that way.
What can Christmas offer when life is a lot more like a crushed bird than it is a big red bow?
Because the truth is, every year has a little bit of “the bird” in it. Each year, there are things that don’t go according to plan, things we grieve as we ponder the months that have passed. This past year has been really good for my family, and we’re all very happy where we are. And yet, it hasn’t been without its challenges and moments of grief. I expect the next twelve months will be the same.
Christmas invites us to examine the hope we have, a hope that is grounded in the reality of what is, knowing that God is always – always – present with us: even in grief, even in oppression, even in loneliness, even in death.
I’ve learned over the years that having this brightly colored avian Ebenezer on our tree offers our family an opportunity to name that not everything is great. God is faithful, and there is pain. Both of those things are true, and neither one cancels out the other. Just because God is loving and faithful, that does not require us to pretend things are fine when they aren’t, or that grief and suffering don’t exist. We don’t have to look for the silver linings, and we certainly don’t have to put that big red bow on suffering.
As we decorate the tree this year, my family will once again recount the stories behind each ornament, including the one for this year that represents a great accomplishment. And we will all pause when we get to The Bird, remembering the things that didn’t destroy us, and the God who was there the whole time.
Rev. Sara Nave Fisher is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She currently serves as the Senior Minister at Rolling Oaks Christian Church in San Antonio, Texas.
Image by: Sara Nave Fisher, The Bird
Used with permission