One of my most definitive memories is of a Christmas many years ago, in a little apartment high in the Chicago skyline. I had recently outgrown Santa Claus and it was, of course, a cold, dark, and windy night. I sat on the couch next to my dad, with only the lights of the Christmas tree to light the room. The tree was real – my parents had defied the rules and snuck it up the freight elevator at the back of the building – and the warmth that radiated up from the 24 floors below us made the pine cones crackle and pop as they opened. Behind the tree our living room windows looked over the city and I could see lights in other people’s windows, too.
Handel’s Messiah was playing on vinyl.
The beauty and sadness of the memory pierce as sharply today as they ever have.
Light in the darkness, peace, safety, home… love… that moment has seared itself into my memory as a glimpse of transcendence – everything that Christmas is supposed to be.
But why sadness? What about that night could possibly have reached into a child’s soul and left the sense that something was wrong?
Advent. I only began to understand that memory when I learned – as an adult – about Advent.
Even as a child in a loving home I knew a little bit about the darkness. My little sister was sickly to the point that my parents feared for her survival. My dad’s work kept him gone so much that I only have four memories of him in five years. Money was tight. But we at least had coats. Some of the kids in my class didn’t. On the way to school, we walked past homeless children begging for food. I had seen grown men, drunk, singing to themselves in the park down the street, as they stretched out to sleep on a public bench, wearing clothes with the stink of their own waste. And home seemed so far away.
So as my dad and I sat on the sofa that night, I had a small inkling that all was not right with the world. Since then, of course, that inkling has matured. Sometimes December arrives with joy and excitement – the glowing faces my own children who can’t stop jumping up and down with the sheer thrill of the season. But even as I try to cultivate the magic for them, I know people who would give anything if they could have a child of their own to love. Around tables there are seats that should not be empty – but they are. There are overdrawn bank accounts. There are addictions and lies and betrayals… our own and other people’s.
And the lights feel like a mockery and the bells ring hollow.
So I think it is appropriate that the winter solstice occurs at the end of Advent. As the old adage goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn. The longest, darkest night of the year is December 21st, just a few days before Christmas. The frenzy of shopping and over-indulgence is at its peak and the emptiness of the bustle stands in starkest contrast to the yawning chasm of need within each of us. And it is in precisely this moment that God arrives.
“For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of HIs government and peace
There will be no end.
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever,.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
Isaiah 9: 1-8