[Symbol] – Mary:
[A Story relating to the Symbol]
Christmas in July
By Breanna Olaveson
The sun had set long ago, but spotlights cut through the darkness as the soundtrack of the pageant boomed over loudspeakers. The atmosphere was alive with joy and whispered anticipation. My costume clung to my back and shoulders as I hiked up the hill through the muggy summer air, fireflies dancing in the trees beyond the path. I cut behind the stage toward the trail leading away from the dressing rooms. It was July in New York, and I was in full costume as a cast member in the Hill Cumorah Pageant. I had a lot of things on my mind, but Christmas certainly wasn’t one of them. At least, not yet.
Like most others in the cast, I played more than one part. I had just traded my elaborate dance costume for plain, Native American–style clothes in preparation for my favorite scene: the Savior’s visit to the Nephites in America. But I needed to come onto the stage from the far side of the hill, so I walked. I crept around the back of the stage, out of sight of the thousands of people who had come to see the production. The rush of performing in front of such a large crowd combined with the physical exertion of the climb made my heart race.
Then I glanced up at the stage—or what I could see of it from below—and saw something that surprised me. It was a perfect living Nativity: a beautiful young woman with long brown hair knelt on the stage with a baby doll in her arms, a young man standing sentinel behind them both. The spotlight lingered briefly on the family as the narrative described Nephi’s vision of the birth of the Savior, then the lights went down. The actors stood, leaving the stage and heading back the way I’d just come.
The encounter gave me pause. In my mind, Mary and Joseph belonged in December, in the cold and the joy of the holiday season. Seeing them portrayed in the heat of the summer felt out of place, like watching football in June or eating pumpkin pie on Memorial Day. But they brought an undeniable spirit of Christmas to this hot summer day I was spending in New York, even if I didn’t fully understand why.
The line between reality and imagination blurred often during these performances. I knew the Mary and Joseph I’d seen were part of a dramatization, but the feelings the encounter created in me were genuine.
It had happened before, during rehearsals for the scene I was about to perform in.
Preparing for the scene portraying Christ’s visit to America had been a poignant experience. Even though it was sweltering hot at midday and the college student walking across the stage was not actually the Savior, it was easy to get wrapped up in the emotion of the thing. Even now, waiting backstage in costume, I felt joy and anticipation. When I was finally onstage and saw the actor portraying the Savior descend from high above, I didn’t have to remind myself to kneel in reverent adoration. In my mind, it felt real.
Do you remember me? I asked in my mind. Do you remember all the times I’ve prayed and asked for your peace? Do you remember how I pleaded for help and forgiveness through the Atonement? Do you recognize me? The moment broke my heart open and incited self-reflection that I had not experienced before. It felt sacred and peaceful.
Sacred, like the nearby grove I’d visited. It was the place where my religion began, and I knew the origin story by heart. But I’d never been to the place where it had all happened—where God the Father and the resurrected Christ appeared to Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago—and I was happy to be there. Like Christ’s appearance in the Americas when He came to the Nephites, He had come to this grove to open the final dispensation and answer young Joseph’s important questions. I found a quiet place to sit and read from Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision. The Sacred Grove was appropriately named. I knew the Savior had been there, and the place felt hallowed, serene. This trip to New York, it seemed, had something to teach me about the Savior and His mission.
I saw Mary and Joseph in their place again the next night, a little reminder of where it all began. But even then, I still didn’t get it.
* * *
For a while, Mary and Joseph remained part of Christmas celebrations—more important, I knew, than the cookies and the caroling, but essentially in the same category. Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I ate, sang Christmas carols, acted out the Nativity, read from Luke 2, and went to bed to await the long-anticipated Christmas morning. The story of Christ’s birth was an integral part of the celebrations, but it never really touched me again like it had during the Pageant.
Then came Christmas 2013: my first away from the place I’d always called home. More than five years had passed since that summer I spent in New York. I now had a husband, a barely two-year-old daughter, and a brand-new baby. We were young, and because our little family had recently moved twelve hundred miles away from our families, we spent the holiday on our own. It was quiet.
I’d never experienced a Christmas with so little food, so little celebration, and so little noise. When my children went to bed, it was just my husband and me in our little living room. It was cleaner and more comfortable by far than the stable I’d read about every Christmas Eve, but for the first time, I really thought about Mary and Joseph and what that very first Christmas might have been like.
I even had a baby, which seemed appropriate. When I held her that Christmas, I wondered what she would become. I wondered what she would do with her life and what her Heavenly Father had planned for her. I decided it was probably something big. That made me wonder why I was chosen to be her mom and what God needed me to do to raise her. And then I thought about Mary.
That Christmas, she became something more to me than a supporting character in the brief account of the Savior’s birth. I saw her as the woman chosen to raise Him, to love Him, to prepare Him for His ministry and His ultimate sacrifice for all mankind. She bore the Savior before He bore us; she carried Him before He carried us; she loved Him as He loves us.
Without Mary and without Joseph, the Savior would not have lived to fulfill His ministry in Jerusalem or to die for the sins of all people. Without the body Mary helped give Him, He never could have died, He never could have resurrected. He never would have appeared to the Nephites in America or to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove or to anyone anywhere else. All of it was possible because of Mary. She was there for the beginning of the Savior’s story, and she played an important role in everything that came after.
The Savior said once that He was “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (3 Nephi 9:18). This moniker is appropriate for the Savior on a number of levels, but in a way, it can also be applied to His mother, who was with Him at the beginning of His life and at the end. All year long, Christians worldwide celebrate the life of Christ. We learn about His ministry, celebrate His triumph over sin and death, and try to emulate His sinless life. But at Christmas, we also remember Mary and her baby boy.
Now when I remember those summer nights I spent in New York so many years ago, I remember the girl who was Mary and the boy who was Joseph. On the quiet Christmases I’ve spent away from my big family, I’ve remembered Mary and Joseph, who traveled to a distant country and were alone when “the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6). Because of the lessons of that muggy July, every cozy Christmas means something more.
Because Mary was delivered that night, all of us can be delivered too.
[Song] Ave Maria
[Scripture] Luke 1:38
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the lord; be it unto me according to thy word.
[Challenge – Be Thoughtful] – Mary is the mother of Jesus. The scriptures tell us that Mary was ‘highly favoured’ for her faith in God. Mary received a visit from the angel Gabriel, who told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Saviour of the world. She cared for Jesus His whole life, and was there when Jesus died. At Christmastime, Mary is a symbol of a faithful mother’s courage and love. Mary pondered things in her heart and was very thoughtful. Take some time out of today to be thoughtful of others. Ponder ways in which you can show that you care.
[Story relating to the challenge]
Hand-Drawn Marshmallows and Other Christmas Miracles
by Meg Johnson
I cried the hardest my first Christmas in a wheelchair. I’m not saying that because this is a Christmas story or because I am trying to milk some emotions. It really was the hardest time for me that year. I had been paralyzed in a hiking accident that March and released from the hospital in June—released was the word they used, but I was, from that time on, wheelchair bound. My legs wouldn’t move. My stomach and back muscles didn’t work. And my hands were lifeless and floppy.
The whole year was hard, don’t get me wrong, but Christmas brought a whole new level of challenges. I have a small family, but we are big on creativity, so for Christmas, we were all over the handmade cards, hand-crafted candy, hand-painted . . . stuff. It was all about the handmade, but the trouble was, my lifeless and floppy hands didn’t work.
I sat by myself with a tube of wrapping paper, some tape, and a store-bought gift in a small box. I refused help from everyone; I wanted to do it myself. And all by myself. I had lost so much independence being paralyzed that I fought for every morsel I could get. It must have been an hour of ripping (scissors were out of the question; how could I use those with no finger movement?) and taping. The result was a tape-covered, squished ball of Christmas paper. Independence isn’t always beautiful.
Everyone said I should be proud as they set it under the tree next to the other gifts tied with multilooped ribbons, glittery craft sticks, and origami birds. That was seriously how my family wrapped their gifts.
After that initial Christmas disappointment, I worked hard the next year and, one by one, relearned to how to tape and tie and use scissors (cue the Hallelujah chorus). By the next Christmas, I was wrapping gifts almost as beautifully and just as independently as I’d done before my accident.
And I was regaining more independence in other areas of my life too. That very next Christmas, I drove myself to the Ross department store in Centerville, Utah. There was a light snow, and I was going Christmas shopping . . . by myself! It was my very first time driving alone anywhere at all since I’d been paralyzed. At first it took a long time to get myself, meaning my ragdoll body, into the car, so people always had to help me and were always, always with me. But I found a car I could put my wheelchair in and lift myself into, and after a long, hard road (no pun intended) of test drives and a whole lot of practice, I learned to drive it with the use of hand controls.
As I drove to Ross to shop by myself, my heart soared in the sheer indescribable feeling of regained independence. Truly, I don’t know how to describe it, but I think you can slightly compare it to the feeling you’d have if you grew so big that you could step off the earth, turn around, and hold it in your hand.
As I got out of my car and into my wheelchair at Ross, the tiny snowflakes felt like congratulatory kisses on my face. I slammed the door shut in total triumph. I raised both my hands into the air and exclaimed victoriously, “I’m alone!”
My enthusiasm must have frightened some passing shoppers because an elderly couple stopped to see if I was okay. They were very concerned and offered to stay with me since I was apparently “alone.” I hadn’t realized that maybe some little girl in a wheelchair in the snow, staring at her car and shouting, might need a little supervision.
My car became my passport to anything I ever wanted. Anywhere. I felt so liberated. Wheelchair bound now meant only that I couldn’t stand, not that I couldn’t move.
And I was on the go. I went back to college. I joined the wheelchair rugby team. I competed at Ms. Wheelchair America. I got married!
My husband, Whit Johnson, was a former boyfriend who heard about my accident and visited me in the hospital several times. After I was released from the hospital, he drove me to therapy and took me to young single adult activities and firesides. We watched movies together and talked. And then he proposed to me late one night in October with pumpkins he’d carved to say, “Meg, will you marry me?”
A few weeks before we were married, Whit and I were sitting on the couch watching a movie. We held hands but not really. My paralyzed fingers just flailed. I pushed our hands into the black leather of the couch so my fingers would wrap around his, but as I did, my heart sank. What kind of subpar wife was I going to be? I couldn’t even hold his hand. How could I do the other things wives did? I couldn’t believe he was going to marry me. Surely he deserved someone better. Someone more able.
I looked up to him and asked, “Doesn’t it bother you that I can’t walk?” I knew it did. How could it not?
He was quiet for a few moments before he responded. “Yes,” he said. “But not as much as it would if I couldn’t be with you.”
My husband married me as I was, wheelchair and all, on February 29, 2008, four years after I was paralyzed. We were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple for time and all eternity—and they don’t make wheelchairs in eternity.
I know we’re not your normal couple, but really, who is? Everyone has disabilities they work through and weaknesses they are trying to overcome. In that respect we’re not that different from any other couple. We just pretend like I’m not in a wheelchair, and it really doesn’t seem like I am. We try to do things the normal way. My husband works and fixes stuff in our home. I make breakfast, dinner, and sometimes lunch. I visit teach as well as do laundry, and we take Christmas gifts to the neighbors.
My husband likes to adopt the idea that you don’t want to miss somebody, so you probably shouldn’t take gifts to anybody. That way nobody feels left out. I like to take the stance that if you give a gift to every single person in the entire neighborhood and surrounding streets, you don’t miss anybody.
Needless to say, my husband thinks I overdo it. I think he might be right, but that still doesn’t stop me. I love being able to show a little love for my ward family and neighbors by giving them something I’ve made.
We were still essentially newlyweds the Christmas I decided to make small marshmallow treats for the neighbors. When I say marshmallow “treats,” I really just mean marshmallows. I’m not a very fancy baker like all the amazing Pinterest wives, but I am pretty artsy, and I like to draw, so I drew small Christmas pictures on each marshmallow with edible markers.
My pictures weren’t Rembrandts, but each one took me several minutes. To draw, I wove the edible marker between the fingers of one hand and held the marshmallow up with the other. The pictures were small, so I had to hold them close to my face so I could see what I was doing, but because my tummy and back muscles don’t work, I was merely balancing my upper body in place while I drew each picture. I didn’t want to move and ruin the drawings, so I had to hold my breath as I flexed all the rest of the working muscles in my shoulders, neck, and face so I could create these mini edible masterpieces.
I had about five marshmallows in each bag and over forty bags, so it was a lot of breath holding and breaks. But I got them all done and wrapped them up in Christmas bags with Christmas bows. I was so pleased with myself. I mean, there weren’t any glitter sticks or origami birds, but I’d done them myself, and they looked pretty dang decent.
It was a cold night a few days before Christmas when my husband was loading all of our marshmallow treat bags into my Subaru Baja for delivery. We had plenty of snow, and it seemed like the perfect Christmas night to deliver our hand-drawn Christmas treats to our neighbors. My husband had turned on the car and turned up the heat so it would be nice and warm for me when I got in, which was nice because something weird about being in a wheelchair is that I cannot control my temperature. It was actually the first ability to go when I broke my neck. I just stopped being able to sweat or warm up my body. I can’t control it at all; whatever the weather is around me is what my body tries to be. I am literally cold blooded. So my husband was trying to make it easy for me so I could go from my warm house to my warm car and not be chilled while we delivered our special gifts.
When everything was finally loaded (and hopefully not melting in the full-blast heat), my husband came back in for me. We did not want or need to bring my wheelchair along, so he was going to pick me up and put me on his back, piggy-back style.
I kind of love to ride on his back and remember what it feels like to step and move with legs beneath me. I also like to see from his viewpoint. I’m so short, I don’t get the visual standing people get. However, maybe that’s not such a bad thing because when he picks me up, it reminds me that I need to dust. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Anyway, my husband opened the front door wide so we could walk out once he picked me up, but as he did so, he saw our car, our nice warm car with all the Christmas bow-tied hand-drawn marshmallow gifts, driving down our quiet neighborhood street. Without us.
Time seemed to stand still. Then, in slow motion, my husband turned to me, his eyes as wide as the distance between us and our car, and said, “Our car’s been stolen.”
Our car. My car. The only car I could drive. The only car that could fit my wheelchair. My passport to the outside world. My element of independence had been taken. It was long gone in the dark December night.
And so were all of the hand-drawn marshmallow gifts.
The open door let in a Christmas chill as my husband and I stared at each other, neither one of us daring to look away, or daring to even blink, both searching for some explanation, some rationale, but finding nothing except what surely was a mirrored image of our own wide-eyed, disbelieving look.
We were on the verge of tears, and we knew it, but before any could fall, I quickly said, “We can cry, or we can laugh, but there’s no going back.”
So we laughed. And we laughed hard. And we laughed so hard we cried.
We had a hard time calling the police because they didn’t take our call very seriously. We just kept laughing. They kept asking if it was a joke. Yes, we supposed it was, but the joke was on the thieves who probably don’t even need a wheelchair-accessible car. Or hand-drawn marshmallows.
Our car being stolen was quite the Christmas sensation. Our families, our friends, and the entire community was in an uproar. The newspaper headlines read:
“Thief Steals Woman’s Specially Modified Car”
“Grinch Steals Paralyzed Woman’s Specially Modified Car in Ogden”
“Grinch Steals Disabled Woman’s Car and All Her Handmade Gifts”
We got phone calls, e-mails, and letters from friends, family, and strangers whose hearts went out to us that Christmas. Our names were put on multiple temple prayer rolls. Facebook exploded with people sharing in the loss of the car and my independence.
My husband and I continued laughing through it all. Our newlywed salary didn’t give us a lot of options except to just start saving our pennies for another wheelchair-accessible car.
That Christmas we adopted my husband’s philosophy that if you don’t give any of your neighbors gifts, nobody feels left out.
Late into the night on Christmas Eve, Whit and I cuddled close on the couch. We were sure Santa Claus couldn’t fit a new car, or any other element of independence, into our stockings, but we enjoyed the flashing lights on the tree.
My husband squeezed me tight and said he was glad I hadn’t been in the car. I squeezed him right back and said I was glad he hadn’t been in the car. We both agreed that they could take the car, the independence, the treats, the time, and the effort, but there was nothing in the car we would miss this Christmas.
It was okay that our car, my car, had been taken. As I laid my head on my husband’s chest and felt him breathe in and out as he fell asleep, I thought about how hard I’d fought to do things on my own. I thought about how triumphant I’d felt when I could finally drive by myself. I thought about how happy I’d been when I could finally tape things and use scissors.
But wrapping a beautiful present, complete with glitter sticks and origami birds, didn’t seem like the goal anymore as I snuggled closer to my husband. After all, independence isn’t the plan. It never was. We weren’t sent to earth to see how much we could do all by ourselves but, rather, to see how well we shared the gifts we brought with us and how well we unwrapped the gifts we see in each other. And to see how much we could rely on God.
I must have dozed off with my husband, enveloped in the light of the Christmas tree, because we were both startled by a late-night phone call from “Officer Elf” informing us that the police had found our car.
Three big, tough men were driving it along Main Street when a canine unit pulled them over. The three men jumped out and ran like crazy to try to get away, but the dog caught one of the men and dragged him to the ground.
The police returned the car to us that night, complete with brass knuckles, but not any hand-drawn marshmallow treats. We like to think the thieves ate them.
We resumed cuddling on the couch and laughed once again as we considered the past few days. We laughed at the car, the newspaper headlines, the worry, the brass knuckles. We laughed and hugged and hugged some more. And as we hugged, it suddenly occurred to me that no matter what abilities I had or didn’t have, no matter how fancy my bows were or whether I could add glitter sticks to my presents, I was sealed to my husband for time and all eternity, and that was a gift no one could steal.
And I don’t need scissors, glitter sticks, or tape to wrap him tightly in—just my arms to hold him close this Christmas . . . and the eternity of Christmases to come.
Media links: [A Saviour is born]
[Mary, the Mother of Jesus]
10th Anniversary Advent Throw-Back :
[A favourite from previous Advents]
By word and deed, Mary, the mother of Jesus, teaches devoted followers of her son about the significant virtues of a true disciple.
Although little of Mary’s life is actually recorded, what is recorded reveals a pattern of righteousness. That pattern is (1) faithful obedience to the word of God, (2) expressive joy for God’s blessings, (3) readiness to receive God’s witness and counsel from His servants, and (4) rearing a posterity who glorified God.
For Mary, the mother of the Son of God, there was no misconstruing of the sacred. She Knew who the baby was that lay against her breast. She knew of His promised destiny. Perhaps she knew that the deaf and blind awaited His cure and that many would look to Him for salvation. [By Susan Easton Black]
[Colouring Page] – Right Click to Save.