Dec 23, 2021
This is the darkest week of the year, and I’m not a fan. Cold is no fun for me, either. If given the choice, this Florida man would never live above the Mason-Dixon. Snow lost its appeal for me after the first few times every car in Washington, D.C. simultaneously performed the blacktop ballet, and whatever blood-borne antifreeze my friends from New England enjoy was left out of my makeup. But it’s the darkness that really gets me. Knocking off work and finding that the sun has already vanished is a little disheartening, even for those of us who don’t suffer any clinical effects from it. And this is something everyone who lives anywhere but the equator feels it a little, the Sunshine State included.
There’s more going on in the bleak midwinter than just astronomy. I think the solstice has a symbolic relationship with a kind of twilight of the soul. As daytime reaches its annual minimum, and with it outdoor activity, our worlds shrink, and we become more aware of who we really are in relation to the mirror and to each other. The trees and many of the animals fell asleep months ago. We don’t have that luxury. Winter, with its darkness and cold, is a natural picture of death. And not only a picture, but a countdown for each of us. “I have seen many winters,” goes the arcane euphemism for old age. Each winter marks the passing of another year, bringing each of us closer to our own dormition.
Perhaps that’s why Christmas can throw sorrow into sharper relief. If the poor man is poorest in comparison to the rich, then those who don’t see cause for celebration feel it most keenly when everyone around them is celebrating. I knew about this phenomenon and the statistics on it well before this time in 2018, when someone I dearly love took his own life. But now I really understand it. Something I always felt at the back of my chest in December church services when prayers were lifted up for the broken became real to me in a permanent way. Thirty Christmases from now, if the Lord should tarry and grant me old age, I will remember that unnecessary loss as I sing carols with my grandchildren.
Anyone can hear the solemn notes of Christmas in those carols, no matter who you are or what you’ve lost. The haunting strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” echo more than Israel’s long wait for her Messiah. As the people who walked in darkness anticipated the first coming of the Light, we groan with a sharper, more urgent pang for His final revelation. We mourn in lonely exile with God’s people of old, and though that carol’s refrain rightly urges us to rejoice, the darkness doesn’t end on December 24th. It’s there at the manger side, and it follows the God-man to Calvary.
That’s why there is a stillness there at the manger that can only be likened to a funeral—a realization that this Infant greeted by angelic exultation was born to die—that the weight of mankind’s sin and the futility beneath which creation itself groans will fall on His shoulders—that a sword will pierce His mother’s heart as a Roman spear pierces His.
Writing in The New York Times, Tish Harrison Warren urges us to anticipate Christmas by facing this darkness, both natural and supernatural. The fast of Advent, she observes, strikes an instructive contrast not just with the feast to follow, but with America’s over-sugared month of festivities and frivolous spending. Step into a liturgical church, she suggests, and you’ll find something precious that has nearly been forgotten: “a countercultural sparseness” marked by long stretches of silence and hymns played in minor keys.
Hymns like my favorite, “What Child Is This?”—especially the rendition by Norweigian singer, Sissel Kyrkjebø: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,” it says, “the cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” You can almost hear the carol’s title as an awed question from a passerby as Mary rocks her Newborn to sleep. The answer, even after He is born, is mingled joy and sorrow, light and darkness. What He has come to do is cause for celebration, but it will be a Passover celebration. We are being purchased out of slavery, but at a terrible price. The Lamb has to be slain.
Through it all, the audible twilight of that minor key reminds us of the paradox at the heart not only of Christmas, but of our place in redemptive history. Christians use the year to commemorate the Lord’s life because it is the pattern for our lives. It’s why our mournful anticipation doesn’t conclude with Advent, nor should our plaintive hymnody. We have not fully come into the life that brave little Boy began winning for us in Bethlehem. So we exult with these somber songs and face the darkness with joy, because He is composing new music for the morning.
Whatever the historical case for His actually having come into the world on December 25th, it is also right that we should mark the year’s darkest days with the reminder of our Savior’s first Advent. This celebration, as all celebrations, brings into sharp focus the paradox of redemption—the “not yet” which tempers the “already” of God becoming man and bearing our sins. There is work left to do, there are tears left to cry, and there is blood left to shed.
Thank God that as His Son joined us at the turning point of history, He joins us again in the longest nights of the year. Even though winter has only begun, every day after His birth is a little brighter--literally. We must still weather the remaining darkness of the Curse, no matter where we live. Death will strip our bones as surely as winter strips the trees. But the light and life of the world has come, and has already broken the power of both death and winter. And that light, just like the light outside, is increasing.