The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There are bumps in every road–even the road to Bethlehem. There are things that we plan, that we need, that somehow do not go the way we envisioned. For me, one of my favorite services is the Service of the Longest Night, the service of light where we remember that even in the midst of those bumps in the road, even in the darkest darkness, is God, walking with us, bumping along just like we are. And then Wednesday night, I got sick. Now I don’t do sick well. It’s hard to admit that I’m sick. But Thursday was just not going to happen for me so I missed the Service of the Longest Night. I missed the service that I probably needed to help me get through some bumps in the road because of a bump in the road. Go figure!
I actually don’t think that original journey to Bethlehem was without its bumps. Life is like that. The little caravan with the pregnant couple whose world had been turned upside down probably encountered lots of things. They probably couldn’t drive straight through. There were places that they had to avoid, places that were filled with danger from thieves or wild animals or parts of the road that were all but impassable. And the weather was totally unpredictable. Who knew that it would be this cold at night? But they knew that this was something that they had to walk and they knew that they were not alone. But it was so incredibly dark!
We are told that this is the season of light. We are usually made to believe that this season should be a joyous one of celebration. We are made to feel that we should put aside our worries and our cares and enjoy ourselves; we are told to embrace the celebrations and be happy; we are told to look toward the light, the birth of the Christ child. And yet, tonight, here we sit in darkness. This is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year–fourteen hours of darkness. The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “solstitium”, from two words meanings “sun” and “stand still”. Technically, this comes from the fact that during the days surrounding the solstice, the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky and then seems to have the same noontime elevation for several days in a row. To early astronomers, the sun appeared to hang in the sky, suspended, paralyzed, as if waiting for some word to move on.
So it seems that on this night of darkness, it is appropriate to acknowledge those parts of our lives that do not seem to “fit” with the joyous season—our frustrations, our fears and anxieties, our anger, our depression, our loneliness, our despair, our grief. These are not things that we can just leave at the door to the season and then pick them up later. They are part of us. And just as we bear them, God takes them and holds them and in what can only be attributed to the mystery of God, somehow manages to put a light in the window in the midst of our darkest night.
That’s exactly what happened that first Christmas. Think about it. Things were far from completely right with the world. The young couple Mary and Joseph were not wealthy, prominent citizens of the capital city of Jerusalem. They were poor working class citizens of a no-name town in what was essentially a third-world country. Remember the Scriptures: nothing good comes from Nazareth. There was nothing there. And we tend to romanticize their trip to Bethlehem, making it into some sort of painting of a starlit camping trip with a lovely dark blue backdrop and a beaming star above. That wasn’t exactly the way it was. If they did indeed have to make that journey as the writer of the Gospel According to Luke claims, it’s about an 80 mile trip, a 4-day journey under the best of circumstances. But, as we know, the teen-age Mary was pregnant and at that time, they would probably want to avoid Samaria (which was not the friendliest of territories to the Israelites), which means they probably would have circled through what is now modern-day Jordan, making it an even longer trip. And, remember, the whole reason that they were traveling at all was for the tax census, imposed by a foreign government to pay for foreign rulers that ruled their lives. These were not the best of times. They traveled in darkness. But that part of the story somehow falls away when it is illumined by the light in the window. God came, Immanuel, God with us. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
You know, since humanity began, light has been important. But for those of us who live in the city, where profound physical darkness almost never comes, we may have lost that sense of what light really means. It’s about more than just lighting our way or giving us a pathway so that we can see where we are going. Think about those who lived before there was electricity and streetlights every 500 feet or so. When the sun went down, they were plunged into darkness, save for a few strategically-placed stars. Until, that is, they lit a candle. And cultures all over the world and throughout history have had traditions of putting a candle in the window.
The Irish tradition of putting a candle in a window is a symbol of hospitality. Reminiscent of the first Christmas, it was seen as a gesture to ancient travelers who could find no shelter that there was room for them. During those times in Irish history when Catholicism was abolished, a candle in the window designated a safe place for Catholic members and clergy. And we’ve all seen movies and depictions of people trudging through a dark and foreboding snowy night only to be saved by seeing a light in a window. So, lighted windows are much, much more than something that provides us light to see. They are places of hospitality, of welcome. They signify shelter and protection. A candle in the window draws us in from the darkness. It brings us home.
So, maybe we who live always surrounded by light don’t really have an appreciation for what lighted windows really mean—until, that is, we find ourselves surrounded by darkness, until we find ourselves encountering a bump in the road. And in those times, there is the light—a place of welcome, of shelter, of safety. It draws us home. The promise of the season is not that there will be no darkness but that it will not overcome the light, that it will not overcome us.
Reflection: What bumps in the road have you encountered this Advent? Where have the lights in the window been for you?
Grace and Peace,