“Am I the only one, or does the world feel darker to you too?”
I don’t like winter. I do have brief, fleeting moments of attraction—trysts, you might call them. When I see the Milky Way spilling over the edges of a coal-black sky or notice sunlight diamonds scattered across a crust of freshly fallen snow, I am tempted. But I try to keep these moments of weakness to myself for fear of being mistaken for a true lover.
My reasons for disliking winter are plenteous, but I think I’ve identified the primary culprit, the root of my discontent, the fountainhead of my distaste. It’s the darkness.
I like waking up to sunlight at six in the morning. I love the loitering summer sun that stretches my evening fish past nine. Sunlight warms my bones.
It was pushing 7:30 when the sun finally showed his sorry face this morning. I’d been awake and out of bed for an hour and a half. Unless the occasion calls for candlelight, we will eat supper tonight with the dining room lights on. I’ve started wearing undershirts again. The darkness has crept into my bones. Today may be a luxuriously warm fall day, but the sun will still set a minute or two earlier than yesterday, and it will rise a minute or two later tomorrow morning. Winter’s shadow is winning the day.
“But,” you may argue, “with the coming solstice, the tables will turn. The light will start to win again.” I know that. It just takes too long to win back the light we’ve lost. All winter long.
It doesn’t help that darkness seems to be winning in other ways as well. The world I wake up to these days feels darker. Politics seem more polarized. Violence has become too easy an answer. The growing disparity between rich and poor, the imbalance of opportunity between races and genders, the abuse of power and privilege, the coarsening of societal conversation, the absence of civil discussion and respectful debate, the twisting of truth to suit an end—all these things and more cast their ominous shadows over my daily life. Graphic images of death and destruction are as close as the swipe of my finger. Am I the only one, or does the world feel darker to you too?
Thankfully, into these darkening days comes the story of Christmas.
Luke begins his telling of the Christmas story by pointing us to an old country priest named Zechariah (whose name means the LORD remembers) and his “well along in years” wife, Elizabeth (whose name means God is an oath). When an angel of the Lord tells Zechariah he’s going to become a father in his old age, Zechariah questions the news. (If I’d been in his sandals, I would have too.) Because of his questions he’s struck silent, unable to speak for the duration of the pregnancy. When Zechariah finally finds his tongue after nine months of silence, he bursts out in prophetic song. He dips into the Psalms, he borrows from the prophets, and he fashions a spontaneous song of praise to the Lord, the God of Israel, for remembering His covenant—the oath God swore to Abraham—to rescue Israel from their enemies.
Then Zechariah addresses his newborn son, John, the forerunner of the Christ:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).
The old priest is echoing the words of Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2).
I guess the darkness is nothing new. It was there in Isaiah’s day, 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in dark times too. The truth is, darkness has been in the world since the Garden. But into the darkness has come a great light! That’s what the Christmas story proclaims. A Son from heaven has come to shine on us who live in a dark world, to chase back the shadows of death.
This is why I need the Christmas story. It turns me again to the Light. It reminds methat darkness will not win. The story is not over. The Christmas story stirs in me a longing for what is yet to come, for an end to injustice and violence, for the banishing of suffering and pain. Isaiah spoke of a time when“[The nations] will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Can you imagine it?
I was at Home Depot two Christmases ago doing some last-minute shopping. I remember feeling the darkness of the days that year as well. But something happened as I was leaving the store that day. George Frideric Handel stopped me in my tracks. There, in the entranceway of Home Depot, words from his Messiah washed over me from the speakers overhead:
“The kingdom of this world / Is become the kingdom of our Lord /
And of His Christ, and of His Christ; / And He shall reign for ever and ever,/For ever and ever, forever and ever,/ King of kings, and Lord of lords, / And He shall reign forever and ever,/ King of kings, forever and ever,/ And Lord of lords. / Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
And the darkness lifted.