During a particularly difficult Christmas season several years ago, I attended a church’s Christmas pageant and came with very little holiday cheer. It was a painful time for me — and a time of profound spiritual struggle. God seemed elusive to me. My prayers were met with silence.
A verse from a psalm was read from the pulpit: “Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?” In my heart I answered sardonically, You tell me.
“Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?”
Of all the carols sung that evening, the one that lifted my face unexpectedly was the rendition of “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” sung by the youth choir, during which the special needs choir, called STARS, contributed hand motions.
STARS included people with Down syndrome and other special-needs individuals, all of whom wore black outfits and white gloves. Among them was a bald man with a Don Rickles smile; he had hiked up his pants like a football coach and kept giving someone nearby a thumbs-up.
Next to him was a disheveled young woman, her dark loose hair falling into her face. Her countenance left the impression of someone who stood on the edge of catastrophe. The helper, standing behind her, lifted the girl’s arms to help with the hand motions and at one point the girl turned to the helper and collapsed into her arms, laying her head on her breast. The helper received her and held her and stroked her hair.
The white gloves of the STARS choir moved this way and that, one palm up, the other down, sometimes one on top of another, up into the air, then slowly down, then both hands in a circle. The movement of white against black, the bald man’s smile, the disheveled girl’s stricken face, the waving, the hiking of pants, the tears, the hair, the collapse, the embrace, the struggle with fear and everything else that went into this magical dance — it all moved me more than the cherubic faces and voices of all the other choirs.
Then, after the song, a little boy meandered down the aisle to light the Advent candle. He struggled at the wreath because the lighter went out. After a helpful adult helped re-light it, the wick of the candle wouldn’t ignite. The little boy persevered.
At long last, the candle came alive and the flame stood straight. That was when I noticed the little girl in the pew in front of me. She was a Down syndrome child in pigtails with red ribbons and shiny bobbles. When the little boy finally won his success with the candle, she raised her fat little first and smiled so that her eyes curled like crescent moons.
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes.”
She turned her head and saw me watching her. I waved. She smiled and waved back. Someone from the pulpit was reading, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes.”
She turned and saw I had a notebook, which I carried with me always, and signaled that she’d like to have it. I lifted it. This? She nodded enthusiastically. I tore a sheet of paper and handed it her. She shook her head. She didn’t want one piece of paper. She wanted the notebook.
Later, when my eyes were closed during a prayer, I felt something on my knee. The little girl was tapping me. She had scrawled something on the notebook and tore a page out and handed it to me.
I thanked her then pressed my finger to my lips to indicate we needed to be quiet. She reciprocated with a fat finger to her lips and smiled and turned back around. She scribbled for several minutes then tore out a second page and handed that to me. For me? She nodded. In return I drew a picture for her of a smiling face and a Christmas tree. She smiled and mouthed, “Thank you.” During the Doxology, when we sang “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,” she raised her left hand and moved it up and down like a choir director.
I “read” her note to me. It was a full page of cursive-looking doodles filling each line. Some markings looked like cursive Ws, some like Ss. Some looked like Greek, and even Hebrew, written from right to left. I wondered what she was saying to me. I wondered what she was thinking when she wrote.
When I was growing up, my father had raised us kids to lend a special optimism to the Christmas season, which he believed carried a kind of magic that was experienced only by those who believed it could be so. I would not have counted myself among the believers that night. But, being dutiful, I went to the pageant. Amid my doubts and not expecting any answers, something happened inside me. I saw white gloves and moving hands, a disheveled girl’s collapse, and cursive doodles.
It all spoke to me collectively, as if coming from the holy mountain itself: “Lift up your head! Come, climb with me the mountain of the Lord. Who may stand in His holy place? Come, clay-faced ones, lift up your fists, praise God from whom all blessings flow. He will not judge by what He sees with His eyes. Come, white-gloved and bald, disheveled and afraid, come! The root of the stump of Jesse will be the banner of the people. Let us ascend to the mountain of the Lord.”
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s, and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today magazine. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.