WARNING: Spoilers for the film A Star Is Born ahead. Read at your own risk, while remembering this movie has been made four times so if you don’t already know the ending then that’s really on you.

In the beginning of the film A Star Is Born, just after Jackson’s raucous opening number, he sits in the back of a limo, drunk and tired. I’ve seen the movie twice now (cue depressive spirals afterward; WORTH IT), and an image during this scene jumped out both times: at one point, the car drives by a neon billboard lit with multiple nooses. I’m assuming, given the ending toward which Jackson is headed, that this image was intentional. (I’ve reached out to Bradley Cooper several times on the matter and despite our history, I haven’t heard back.) The picture is haunting: death in the presence of life. Morbid foreshadowing.

Every iteration of A Star Is Born ends with the male lead’s death. It’s an undeniably powerful device: the viewer wouldn’t feel the same impact afterward (say, in the form of a depressive spiral) without the tragic element. This most recent version gets in your head because of Jackson’s demise: you wonder if it could have been prevented; what will happen to Ally without him; if someone might hire a hitman to take out that sorry manager; if his dog will be okay. Feeling bereft is a heavy way to leave the theater, but it’s also a lasting one.

The specter of Jackson Maine still looms over me into the Advent season, likely because I’m listening to “Shallow” on repeat (and let me tell you: you haven’t lived until you’ve belted it out while crossing Sydney’s Harbour Bridge in a convertible, just saying).

Advent isn’t a time typically associated with death and loss. If you ask my kids, it’s about presents (#workingonit), and as I get older its meaning skitters over all the important aspects of life for me: family, faith, light coming from darkness, emptiness bearing fullness, cocktail parties. But a closer inspection of the Nativity reveals that it’s incomplete without the cross in the background: an image representing where this son, this light in the darkness, was headed from his beginning. Morbid foreshadowing?


But also, not. Because the depression I felt after witnessing the loss of Jackson came from all the questions it raised: what happens next? Sure, there’s a note of hope in Ally’s memorial performance, but that didn’t stop all the ugly crying around me (and from me) at the theater. The predominant tone is grief. And so would the tone of Christmas be, were it not for the deep paradox of the cross that looms over it.

This is our second Christmas as Sydneysiders, but last year we escaped around mid-December for the familiar frigid temperatures, short days, and family that we associate with Christmas. Still, during the Advent season over the last couple of years, my husband and I turn to each other almost daily and shake our heads: “This doesn’t feel like Christmas.” I’m sweating through my cotton tanks; it’s hard to see Christmas lights when the sun sticks around until 8pm; and our boys will be visiting Santa at the beach next week. Given that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, and my personal favo(u)rite, I struggle with the absence of typical Christmas triggers — chestnuts roasting on an open fire and such. The stillness and quiet that attend winter and, until two years ago, Christmas, are lost at present. It seems I need to find something bigger to cling to.

And I’m trying. I’m back into my annual reading of Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (maybe I’ll make it through the whole thing this year!). I’m praying to see Christmas as it’s being shown to me this year, which is not necessarily as I’ve always experienced it. There is a grief that accompanies such changes, and I’m trying to make space for it alongside the joy of the season. Death in the presence of life.

Which is why a recent reading of Luke 1 — a daily part of the liturgy and a passage I’ve been through countless times — was such a gift. At the end of the Magnificat, Mary — who has recently been informed that she will be bearing God’s son though she is an unwed teenage virgin, and must be #terrifiedAF — chooses to see things differently than most of us would. She looks back upon the words from the prophets, at the promises made through them, and chooses to believe that not only is this recent development not a disruption of life, or the end of it as she knows it, but is life itself.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

See what she did at the end there? Because it only took me forty-one years and an across-the-world move to notice it: she sees this disaster that has befallen her as God keeping his promises.

This is staggering. This week we celebrated our own son’s seventh birthday. The first three of his seven years were marked by questions and uncertainty, hospital visits and surgeries. The last four have been filled negotiating a spectrum diagnosis. And only recently have so many of those questions turned into wonderfully full exclamation points. When a first son was born to me, and he and my husband and I faced trials I never expected, it took years for me to believe that this wasn’t a story gone devastatingly awry. It seems Mary assented to a better version of things a bit more quickly. (I choose to believe there was a transition period not covered in Scripture that involved ice cream, Netflix, and possibly several matinee viewings of A Star Is Born.)

“The God Who Keeps Promises by Shattering Lives” wouldn’t be the most appealing marketing campaign for the divine, and it wouldn’t be the most accurate either; I’ve seen enough to know that we don’t have to be catastrophe addicts to grow in faith. But as someone whose daily planner is one of her most prized possessions, I also know that I believe, so inconveniently, in a God who doesn’t adhere to my Ideas of How Things Should Go. I’ve had to go from seeing him as The Great Interrupter to The Perfect Promise-Keeper for four decades now, and despite my suggestions to the contrary, he doesn’t show any signs of changing.

The good news about this is, of course, that no matter how hard it is to believe — no matter how sweaty the backs of my knees are while singing carols in a church without A/C, no matter how many therapy visits my son and I rack up this year, no matter how much jet lag our family battles in efforts to see each other, no matter what diagnosis we receive or how long my depressive spirals last — the Nativity against the backdrop of the cross is both the only full picture and the hope beyond all certainty. It is death foreshadowed in life, but it is death that is not an ending. The question mark — the biggest one, at least — has been abolished. In order for him to become Emmanuel, God with us, there had to be the Nativity. In order for him to stay with us, there had to be the cross. This is deep paradox and lasting hope. Not to mention a hell of an ending — and beginning.