|Lighting of the Luminaries at Barton College -- photo by Keith Tew|
As Christmas approaches, we are swept up into the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of this holiday season. The lights, the trees, the wreathes, the Christmas cookies – a wonderful multisensory reminder not only of the approaching celebration but of Christmas seasons past.
For some folks, however, such reminders cast unwelcome shadows. In a season of expectation and often busy-ness, anxiety can scuttle out from under the bedecked trees. With an overload of celebration in the air, those who struggle with depression can find themselves feeling left outside in the cold. In the flurry of invitations and parties, the social isolation of mental illness can seem even lonelier. And for those grieving lost loved ones, or dealing with family-related trauma, separation, or abandonment, the memories evoked by this holiday season can be painful ones.
Which isn’t to say that one shouldn’t celebrate. But it bears keeping in mind that this season of lights is also a season of deepening darkness. And that just a few days before Christmas is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
In fact, many of our familiar Christmas traditions are adaptations of much older traditions that exactly spoke to this deepening darkness. The yule log, for example, is a Nordic tradition, burned for 24 hours on the longest night of the year in order to entice the sun into returning. Prior to the establishment of the Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice was marked as St. Lucy’s Day, “Lucy” being derived from the Latin root lux: “light.”
All of which is to say: the light-hearted and light-focused traditions of this holiday season are, and always have been, haunted by the darkness. And far from taking away from the meaning of the season, this haunting around the edges of the lights is very much in keeping with the tone and the purpose of these holy days.
There is a dual danger, here, in this Christmas season. There is the danger of the darkness, which contains the unknown, the uncomfortable, the marginalized. And there is the danger that, in focusing on the light, we forget the darkness, and all it has to offer and to teach us.
What would it look like, instead, if during this season we were to welcome in the darkness, to include it in our circle of celebration and care? If, on the longest night of the year, we were to make room in our celebrations for the anxious, the depressed, the mourning, the confused? After all, during this season we remember a family, displaced from their homes, searching for shelter and being turned away – strangers in what should have been their familial homestead but instead felt like a foreign country. What would it mean to welcome these strangers in from out of the darkness?
Jean Vanier, one of the founders of the L’Arche communities in which people with and without various forms of intellectual disabilities live together in shared fellowship, paraphrases a letter he once read from the psychologist Carl Jung. He writes:
"I admire Christians, because when you see someone who is hungry or thirsty, you see Jesus. When you welcome a stranger, someone who is “strange,” you welcome Jesus. When you clothe someone who is naked, you clothe Jesus. What I do not understand, however, is that Christians never seem to recognize Jesus in their own poverty. You always want to do good to the poor outside you and at the same time deny the poor person living inside you. Why can’t you see Jesus in your own poverty, in your own hunger and thirst? In all that is 'strange' inside you: in the violence and the anguish that are beyond your control! You are called to welcome all this, not to deny its existence, but to accept that it is there and to meet Jesus there."When we welcome in the danger of the darkest night, when we welcome in the stranger from outside of our circle of light, we discover that there is darkness in us, too, and that it too needs our welcome and our care. When we make space, in the midst of this season of celebration, for experiences of pain, of sadness, of loneliness, then we find we are making space for our whole selves to truly experience this season.
And if we are able to create this space, we may find, beneath the glitz, the glimmer, and the glamor, a different sort of experience. The experience of a family, huddled in a cave, hoping against hope for God to be born in the darkness:
A quiet, fierce joy.