Perhaps this is why the essence of Christmas has always shone most fully for me within the darkness of the night that precedes it. As a child, Christmas morning was all about the presents. The night before, however, we touched the sacred.
As young children we’d pile into the station wagon dressed in pajamas and winter coats to travel through a world transformed. Enchanted, we’d ooh and aah at trees decked out, houses strung with colored bulbs, the occasional sleigh and reindeer on lawn or rooftop~~all awash in light, dazzling light.
If we hadn’t fallen asleep before we returned home, we’d sit in a living room lit only by the twinkling magic of our own tree and the single bulb within the nearby crèche. The delicate light within an otherwise darkened room brought that timeless scene to life~~the smell of sweet hay, the warmth of the gentle animals, Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus in his manger, angels watching from above.
As I grew older, Midnight Mass was added. Again, it was the light that spoke strongest to me as a plentitude of candles joined with the pungent smell of incense to transform our church into a place far more holy than it was on any Sunday morning.
Not all of us have such idyllic Christmas memories, however. The night sky is not the only darkness we humans confront. There is the shadow side of the human spirit that shows itself in Christmases blighted by poverty, drunkenness and violence, by spirits riddled with pain and despair.
And yet, light shines even there, as children find wonder in the smallest things and believe in magic despite the bleakness of their days or the horror of their nights. Children, it seems, are especially equipped to find light amid darkness. Maybe that’s why Christ loved them so and stressed our need to become like them. Finding light within darkness is perhaps a necessary trait for entering heaven.
While no one knows the exact date of Christ’s birth, the early church chose well in picking a time close to the winter solstice. As the turning point in earth’s journey around the sun, the solstice is always a celebration of light. What better time to honor Christ? Light incarnate. True Light from True Light. Bodhisattva, Enlightened One.
On this Christmas eve~~this silent night, this holy night~~let us open to the Light streaming forth. Let it shine within our joy. Let it shine within our darkness.