This year, I’ve been immersed in the season of Advent for twice the normal length. In October, I began rehearsals for a set of Advent plays. In November, we finished the work of rehearsal and displayed it for an audience. And then finally, as the literal season began, we brought our work to local churches, spending the majority of our Sundays full of the work of the season.
As you can well imagine, I learned a lot about Advent through the process. I wouldn’t say that I have a ton of intimidating head knowledge or anything like that. Rather, it was a building of awareness or perhaps a revival of what had already been growing in me since childhood. Like everything, Advent had grown old and familiar after twenty years of church services and candle lighting.
I learned the names of the candles—Prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels, and of course, the Christ Candle. I learned to light them in order, and it made sense. First comes prophecy, then came Bethlehem etc. It was all very logical. I learned to snuff a candle with the tips of my wetted fingers, something which came after many attempts, ouches, and much flinching.
A visual of the type of Advent wreath we used, shown courtesy of The Sunday School Network.
One of the three characters entrusted to me was Helen. In my understanding of the script, she was smart, loyal, loving, and highly theological. Having struggled with depression in the past, she was very eager to help her dear friend, Peg, who had suddenly withdrawn from social activities. The course of the play was her retelling, through the use of the advent wreath, the story of Peg’s last Christmas—as it turns out that Peg is secretly suffering from a terminal illness.
In my understanding of the script, Helen was also a lot like me. In acting this is a good realization. Connecting with your character, no matter how different they are from you, is always important in making the portrayal as real as possible. Thus, it’s very nice when these connections are automatic, as they were with Helen.
My connections with Helen were subtle but deep. Her way of talking was not unlike mine, and she was close to my age. I could easily connect to her love of God and theology, and desire to help her best friend. And like Helen, I have also spent time in the depths of clinical depression. In fact, the weeks and months leading up to Advent, the time I spent embodying her, I was in those depths.
At the end of the play, I had the privilege of speaking the last lines to the audience:
Father, Thank you for my life. Our Lord come.
However, I didn’t always “feel” those words because frankly, I wasn’t always thankful for my life. I struggled to desire to address God as Father, or ask Him to come. Of course, acting isn’t entirely based upon “feeling it” or we’d never get anything done in theatre! But good acting must be truthful. I endeavour to be honest in my work, and thus, I made a pact with myself. I wouldn’t say those words unless I truly believed them.
That’s not to say I would skip the lines if I was in a bad mood. I always had to say them, but I wasn’t allowed to fake it. I gave myself as much time as I needed to pause, and find the part of me, no matter how intensely buried beneath the weights, that was thankful for life. Despite all the pain I was often in, I always said the lines. I always found some part of me that was at least somewhat honestly thankful for what I had.
I’m not one to say that serious problems can be erased or that mental health can improve with a simple change of attitude. We all have deep problems and pains that must be worked through in the process of life. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are not unlike this. But if there is one thing that the embodiment of Advent taught me about the season, it’s that Christmas is about life and the revival of everything good we were meant for. Everything that we lost in the Fall. It is a renewal of sorts. And while we can develop a deep head knowledge of all things theological, our relationship with God may only be deepened with the work of the heart.
God works in living, breathing, heart-beating, weeping, laughing, human person ways, too.
So today, December 26th, in the aftermath of Advent 2015, I will say, Father thank you for my life. Our Lord come. And everyday after that, Lord willing.