“There’s something in the air, isn’t there?” I ask Patryce, my Lyft driver.
“Yes, girl, YES! Oh my God, what is it?” she begins.
It’s a cold, rainy night in Washington D.C., and I’m trying to get to a writer’s workshop across town in a Lyft cab because the trains are delayed. Nothing is functioning in DC today, but what’s new? Patryce and I talk about a darkness we can feel. Sure, we’ve had impeachment hearings happening and open corruption and our democracy in absolute shambles, but it seems to be more than that. There is a palpable tension in the air, a heavy fog that hangs over our nation’s capital. Folks are amped up. People are angry and yelling in the metro stops. The weather is nasty. Sadness and despair seem to hang over every corner.
My husband and I are experiencing a personal dark night of the soul. It was brought on by a crushing disappointment and unfair situation that is beyond our control. It is the kind of thing that takes the wind out of our sails while simultaneously forcing us to pivot and reinvent ourselves. Cheerful holiday tunes are like syrup poured over bitter wounds that need to be held and bound. We just watched Frozen 2 with our kids and Into the Unknown has become our family theme song. We don’t know where we are going and it is dark.
Patryce is a single mom working long hours to put kids through college. I don’t have a usual habit of baring my soul to a total stranger, but tonight I’m rolling with it. Our mutual vulnerability and solidarity feels like we’re lighting matches in the dark, kindling a small fire of human connection. We talk about our families, our struggles, and our disappointments. We talk about the collective grief felt all around us, when suddenly Patryce hits a giant pothole, ripping apart her front tire and sending us careening to a halt on the side of a dark road.
LORDHAVEMERCY, WHY NOW? Bah Humbug.
Cars are not slowing down and its pouring down rain, but Patryce cannot be unmoored. As if this is a normal occurrence, she unswervingly hops out of the car to get her spare and tools out of the trunk. I’m of no help, other than to hold the umbrella over her while she goes to work. She knows what she’s doing, but the tire is too tight to be removed. All of the Mr. Important Pants trying to get home from work whiz by us, their cars within inches of hitting us and spraying us with cold sludge. We call 911 to ask for police lights and help. An hour passes before they arrive. It seems there are more important fires to put out.
What is it about Christmastime that exacerbates the tension? For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, we’re nearing the winter solstice, December 21st. Approaching the darkest, longest night of the year somehow magnifies our heartaches and collectively makes us groan for warmth and new life.
We’re not alone in our December angst. In an interview with Rob Bell, priest and author Alexander Shaia tells us that the ancient Celts, as early as the 4th and 5th centuries, developed rituals and practices during winter to coax the sun into shining again. In the center of town stood the sacred oak tree, the one that had the power to draw lightning. The Celts hung dried fruits on the tree in a beautiful way of decorating the darkness and calling forth rebirth. Four days later on December 25th marked the first day they could see with the naked eye that the light was growing again. The day called for wild celebrations that were not erased when the Celtic world was Christianized centuries later, but rather, evolved into the Christmas celebrations we have today.
“Nature tells the story that the gospels amplify,” says Shaia.
The Advent season is a time of waiting in the dark. Both physically and metaphorically—the end of the year feels like death and despair for many. But year after year, the sun somehow shines again, and new life is reborn. The stagnant and dead pieces of our lives can spontaneously come alive again. The universe is, after all, a repeating pattern of death, burial and resurrection. Scientists have theorized for years that we get our precious metals like gold from dead stars that have exploded. Our own bodies are composed of elements from these dead stars. The tulips and daffodil bulbs are buried in the cold, hard, dark ground in winter so they can burst forth when the sun shines again.
Christmas is a reminder each year that in the midst of a broken, desolate world, new life will be reborn again. When the Celtic world was Christianized, the sacred oak was renamed the Tree of Life, a reference to the Garden of Eden in the creation story of Genesis. The Tree of Life motif is seen in ancient art all over the world, in the Middle East, Europe and the Far East. For the early Christian Celts, the idea is that with the birth of Jesus Christ, we’re readmitted to the garden. But in the meantime, we go to the deepest dark.
Maybe the days leading up to Christmas shouldn’t be about forced gladness and cheery façades. Maybe we’re better off not guilting ourselves into putting on holiday masks, but rather to sit with our sadness and make friends with the darkness. Long before Christmas turned into a loud, bright, commercialized spectacle, the days leading up to Christmas were about sitting in the dark together in our collective grief and holding hands with those whose lives were not on top. The Christmas tradition is about facing the suffering in our communities rather than turning away from it.
“That’s where the grace of the fresh radiance will come forth in us by our courage to walk to the place of the deepest dark. This is the powerful message of Christmas”, says Shaia.
A Celtic evening prayer for blessing during Advent goes like this:
God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,
give us your good word for our souls,
that we might rest
The Gospel of Matthew says Jesus the Christ would be called Immanuel, God with us, not because he is a distant God out there, but rather, he is down here, having entered the experience of human suffering to walk with us in the darkness.
My husband and I are doing what we can to stave off depression, but we have made it a practice of looking for the glimmers of light that we see right now, flickering in the dark spaces. Each night, we share what we saw throughout our day during the lighting of candles and Advent prayers with our children. It could be an act of kindness we see in a stranger, an unexpected joy, a tiny miracle, or the simple delight of our children. The little flickering lights are always there, but its up to us to pay attention to them.
On that cold dark night on the side of the road, the glimmer of light came from a stranger named Patryce who was hustling during the madness of the holiday season. It was the motherly love that manifested itself into sheer grit, propelling her to carry on through the dark and the rain and an unexpected evening spent on the side of the road. Paying attention to the divine spark in a stranger is a small way forward. Looking for love and radiance, usually in unexpected places, can heal the parts of us that cannot heal on their own. We’re collecting these little lights and holding them close. Together they add up to produce a fire that burns through the cold and the dark and moves us forward into a new year. Merry Christmas.