There was a time over twenty years ago, when I could not make sense of Christmas lights. For a couple of days in late December, 1995, every time I passed by the Christmas tree in my parents living room, I had to stop and stare at it for a few seconds until memory kicked in and I was able to orient myself to that strange green tree strung with lights. For those few seconds, the Christmas tree in my parents’ house might as well have been a spaceship winking its extraterrestrial lights at me. It was the first few days after my brother was killed in a single-car accident.
My sister, my husband and children, and I were staying at my parents’ house as we planned my brother’s funeral. Our days were filled with the most grotesque chores: calling Bob’s friends, scrounging around the house to find clothes that would fit him and were not hunting clothes, picking out a coffin and having conversations about allowing natural processes to take their course, mediating between the mortician and my mother, who insisted on an open coffin though the mortician was not sure he could make my brother presentable.
My world had been twisted and misshapen by this tragic accident and the series of unimaginable tasks that resulted from it, the way a carnival mirror twists and misshapes your image. And for a couple of days, it was as though I had not only stepped in front of the mirror, but stepped into it—like Alice stepping through the looking glass—so that my whole reality was grotesque. And for those few days, it was the fine, bright, delicate things of the world, like twinkling Christmas lights, like snowflakes falling, like sunshine filtering through the trees, that were bizarre and out of place.
An old carol, which has become one of my favorites, describes the journey through grief at Christmas time as an uphill climb:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow.
It is a hard road that leads through grief, sorrow, illness, or loss during the Christmas season. It is a road that few of us would travel by choice. And when we are forced to travel it, all of the signs of the season are grotesque and out of place. The jolly tunes sound mocking, the twinkling lights look harsh and glaring, the decorations garish. Approaching them as we do from the steep dark path of grief, loneliness, pain, or fear, it is no wonder we cannot make sense of them. And I don’t know about you, but when I find myself struggling uphill toward Christmas, I would sooner just sit with my own internal darkness than keep climbing toward the garish, insistent gaiety of the season. What I long for is not the blinding glare of Christmas lights, but the true light of Christ.
Isaiah was lamenting the subjugation of Judah to the kingdom of Assyria when he wrote “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” The land of deep darkness was Judah and Jerusalem under the corrupting influence of Assyrian gods. King Ahaz had not only subjugated his people to Assyria, but also turned them away from the worship of the one true God. This political, cultural, and religious subjugation is the deep darkness to which Isaiah refers, and the “great light” is the hope and expectation that is invested in Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, about whom Isaiah writes “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
Hezekiah led the people of Judah back to worship the one true God, who is not cast in bronze or carved in stone or wood, but the living, loving God who longs to make Godself at home in our hearts and souls saying “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul” (Deut. 11:18-20). The true God longs to be close and loving, as close as our own breath, as close as our own heartbeat. It was because of this longing that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
We carry that light inside us, when we love one another:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. . . . God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” When we approach the Christmas season with painful steps and slow, we can bear the light of Christ for each other. The other night, my husband said to me, “I find that I take great comfort in comforting other people.” Sometimes caring for each other is the best way for us to see the light of Christ. We gather around the Christ candle. And if my light is overshadowed by grief or loneliness or fear, then I have the light of Christ in you to guide me. For “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
In a minute we will share the light from the Christ candle as we entrust our hurts, our fears, and our concern for loved ones to the care of God. We take our light from this one candle to symbolize our shared faith in Christ who is the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it. Nor will the darkness overcome us. For as long as we gather in mutual love, that light lives in us.
It is said that the author of the carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” Edmund Sears wrote the carol “during a period of personal melancholy” after suffering a mental and emotional breakdown. One reason I have come to love it so is that it does not try to deny the reality of suffering at this time of year or at any time. It does not tell us to cheer up or buck up or pick ourselves up. It simply acknowledges that above all the messiness of life on earth there is the light of Christ and voices of angels heralding his approach. “O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”