On Friday night, we saw the fireworks.
The City of Steubenville put off the official Christmas tree lighting Tuesday, due to rain. That meant that on Black Friday, the whole population of Steubenville went downtown to cram themselves into tiny Fort Steuben park to try and catch a glimpse of an artificial tree sticking out of the municipal fountain. We all craned our necks and stood on our toes. A local music group sang “O Holy Night.” We counted down from ten to one in unison. I can’t even tell you which local official threw the switch, but suddenly the black cone against the gray-purple Steubenville gloam was lit up with a rainbow of glorious lights, and a volley of fireworks shot up into the sky. We all cheered and applauded with gloved hands.
The next day, we went downtown to see The Nutcracker Village. I look forward to this nonsense every year. Ever since 2014, from just after Thanksgiving until just after Epiphany, Steubenville hosts a display of six-foot handmade nutcrackers commissioned by local businesses. It used to just be along the pathways in Fort Steuben Park, but now it’s all over downtown. There are over 200 nutcrackers on display. There are food trucks and a German beer garden and local music performances on the weekends; they even block off one of the main streets to traffic so local vendors can set up booths and sell Christmas gifts. One of the abandoned store fronts has been turned into a museum for different kinds of Nativity display this year. We walked up and down the grim streets of Steubenville, laughing and taking pictures. We’ll go back several times before it’s over.
I hope I never get so old that I’m annoyed by Christmastime. Christmastime– by which I mean the lull between Thanksgiving and Advent, the Advent season and Christmas itself– is the loveliest time of the year. That beautiful, bubbling, silly anticipation is holy. It’s a wondrous thing that human beings have taken the darkest time of year and made it into a festival anticipating the coming of the Light of the World.
On Sunday night, I got that hellfire and brimstone sermon from the morose deacon and had my severe flashback to the religious trauma and the rape. I haven’t been so sick from a flashback in months. I went home and cried in bed for well over an hour, remembering every terrible thing that’s ever happened to me, and then I cried that I hadn’t met my “Sunday obligation” after trying so hard to get to church once a week. I was further from making peace with the Catholic Church than ever.
I looked at my comments on Twitter and was even further from the Catholic Church, because of all the prim Catholic Traditionalist trolls who got on the thread to call me a pervert and correct me for saying “church” instead of “Mass” and mock me for thinking a homily about hell was a bad idea. Kicking people while they’re down is a work of mercy to the Catholic trolls.
I found myself saying to my twelve-year-old daughter, “I’m sorry I… wait, no, never mind. I’m not sorry I got sick. I can’t help that. That’s something that happened to me and I’m going to try to stop being sorry for being sick. But I’m sorry for the inconvenience and I’m sorry you had to hear that at Mass. God is love, and we do good things out of love, but some Catholics think you have to scare people constantly to make them do good things so they won’t go to hell. That’s abusive. It’s like a parent who spanks their kids all the time so they won’t be bad. But how can you truly be good, if you’re just being good to avoid a punishment? You should be good out of love. We’re not going back to that parish again. I don’t know what we’re doing next week, but we’re not going there.”
I got back online before I went to bed. On Twitter, a ridiculous Traditionalist Catholic man was pontificating that it’s a mortal sin to celebrate Christmas before the 25th and a venial one to celebrate during Advent. It turned out he was joking– or, at least, he said he was after he was ridiculed. But his parody, if it was one, was so absolutely spot on that everyone thought he was being serious. This is exactly the kind of thing that stuffy Catholics constantly say. They want to caution us not to have any joy during Advent. They even want to pooh-pooh the idea of being too childlike and excited on Christmas; it all seems to be warnings against presents and candy and injunctions to just go to Mass. To them, the whole liturgical calendar is about penance, sorrow, following rules to avoid that eternal spanking.
I found myself going to bed, with no prayer to say but “Jesus and Mary, please don’t hit me. Please go away and don’t hit me.”
I woke up after Adrienne left for school and shivered for an hour, certain that God had damned me to hell and that the Virgin Mary and all the saints would enjoy watching me roast there.
When I checked the mail, my check from the newspaper had come in, so I went out to cash it– just enough for the laundromat and the grocery shopping, if I pinched.
When I got in the car, the snow was blowing in.
Outside the store was a display of fresh fir wreaths and garlands that smelled of incense.
Inside the store were ridiculous Christmas trees, stacks of cheap presents, red and green bags of chocolate and peppermint.
That got my spirits up.
There was also an endcap with a display of canned soups– not the insipid ones, but the rich high-calorie soups with little pieces of celery floating in them, the kind I used to think were fancy growing up.
We have been so far behind on everything all year long that I haven’t had a penny to spare. I’ve been at the food pantry more weeks than not lately. I haven’t been able to do a project to help the Friendship Room like I used to; I’ve barely even been able to bring them groceries. And, truthfully, I was so burned out and sick after my failure with the Lost Girl that I have been shy of doing projects to help neighbors for awhile. But I felt I’d like to be converted from that. I would like to be trusting and help people again– not out of the fear of hell. I was already convinced that hell was inevitable. I just wanted to do it because I liked the idea of sharing soup.
I picked out a few cans of chicken stew and clam chowder to donate the next time I went downtown.
I was reminded again that Christ is a sign of contradiction.
The Gospels say what they say. But the people who come to Christ’s words in the Gospels take away such different things. There are those who go to the Gospels and come away with rules, rigidity, cold cruelty and the threat of punishment. And there are those who take away joyful hope in the coming of the Savior, and love for everyone for that Savior’s sake. Two people can look at the exact same text, and one sees a sermon on hell while another sees the promise that Christ is among us in people who need our help. One sees the present darkness and the other sees the light that’s coming. There are those who see Christmas and rejoice, and those who warn that Christmas is a sin.
I won’t know who the real Christ is until I see Him face to face. But I know that only one of those Christs is worth my time. The other, I would gladly go to hell for blaspheming, because blaspheming that old tyrant is justice.
I choose the Gospel of charity and joyful anticipation, whether it damns me to hell or not.
I bought my soup and groceries, and went to pick up Adrienne.
I don’t know what I’ll do this Sunday or at any other time.
I am not quite at peace with myself, but I’m closer than I was.