The Dark Side of Christmas
A Sermon . . .
We light the Advent candles one by one, week by week, ever so gradually, because the dawning of light happens slowly. Outside of here, the pell-mell rush of the holiday season disguises the agony of real waiting. Waiting is hard work, so we lighten the mood and count our way to Christmas with cookies and candies and carols.
The world’s all abuzz except when we come here. Everything slows to a snail’s pace here, enough to annoy us a little when we bustle in all bundled up in holiday frenzy. The steady rhythm of worship collides with the chaos of our consumerism. We were probably more at home in the chaos, because waiting, real and honest waiting, is uncomfortable, slow, dismal.
The unlit candles symbolize we still sit in darkness, living in anticipation of the light yet to come. But no one wants to think about darkness this close to Christmas. Every store you enter is beaming bright with lights in defiance of the fact that outside the mall, it’s dark by 6 o’clock: our days are getting shorter; our nights are getting longer. It is a dark season.
Advent is like watching the sunrise build on the horizon, the dead dark of a winter night ever so slowly shifting to the pink hues of coming sun. Yet we remain camped in a dim place, blanketed by night sky, worried whether the rays will ever reach us, fortified by the hope that they will. That’s what Advent is.
We think of Advent as a celebratory preparation for Christmas day, and it is. Advent is also darkness, waiting, wondering, watching, longing. It is a needy, vulnerable place where the prophets are telling you the dawn from on high will break upon us, but the prospects of it being true seem bleak. Though it’s lined thick with hope, Advent is the seasonal dark night of the soul; it’s the story of those who wait in the shadows, and waiting is at the heart of the Biblical story indeed: How long did Abraham and Sarah wait for a baby, for a promise, how long did the Israelites wait for deliverance in Egypt, how long did they wander in the wilderness, waiting for the Promised Land, how long did they sit in exile and whisper hopes about a coming Messiah, how long did Anna and Simeon pray in the temple that they might see the Coming One? When Zechariah prophesied that the light would dawn on those who sit in darkness, it was more than a pretty phrase; it was a description of reality.
Personally, I’ve never felt the weight of Advent’s darkness like I do now. I’m more needy than ever before for the coming of some obvious light. I feel like one who sits in darkness, in the shadow of death.
According to Zechariah’s prophecy, the light is headed straight for me. How uncomfortably personal and direct. I don’t like this poignant promise from God, because what if it doesn’t come true for me?
I know you want to assure me that it will come true, but haven’t you ever felt that the light couldn’t possibly be meant for you? That the light couldn’t possibly be on its way to you? That you might as well get used to the dark, because the dark was here to stay? I mean, you’ve been there before, right? No sense pretending that the preacher isn’t as human as the rest of us. The thing is, I’m susceptible to despair too, only it’s my job to hold up the hope week after week after week.
You know what happened to me in the last two weeks? I let myself be a human, not a pastor, not superwoman, not the girl who knows what to do when bad things happen, but just a person who found herself in the dark.
And then one of you had the audacity or the good sense to light a candle and set it down in my darkness without pretention. And then another one of you did the same. And then another. And then another. Over and over, like you were forming a wreath of promises to encircle my dark place.
I’m probably breaking a sacred trust when I tell you this, but sometimes pastors talk amongst themselves about their congregations. Complain even. Gasp, I know, it’s terrible. And pastors sometimes, sometimes talk about their churches as if church members were a group of rowdy toddlers in their terrible twos or hormonal teenagers who bicker with one another. The pastor is supposed to be the all-wise parent trying to reign everybody in. I know, it’s hard to imagine a church bickering, but it happens. (Not everybody can be Covenant.) The way I see it, whether or not congregations behave badly, I don’t agree that we pastors should think of ourselves as parental figures.
Maybe it’s just hard to feel parental, when all of you are older than me. Or maybe, no matter how old I am or how old I get someday, I am in awe of you. I want to be more like you. I didn’t come to this church to fix you or guide you or change you. I wanted this job because I thought this is one of the best places in the world to live out faith, with people like you. I would like to be that person who celebrates you, who sees you, who walks beside you, and notices the way you shine. I came to this church because I was under the impression that we might be capable of inspiring one another—you and me. I thought we’d make a good team. I thought I would like to seek God with you, open the Bible and wander around inside Scripture with you, slowly find out how to love with you, become people who pray with you, figure out this gentle way of doing God’s work with you.
But I have to tell you, it’s hard to break the mold. Pastors are pressured to be all authoritative and knowledgeable and preachy; we’re supposed to keep it all together and keep it real all in the same effortless breath. I’ve been trying on my own to break the pattern, to dispense with being in charge in favor of being in cahoots with you in this grand scheme to love God and love our neighbors. I have wanted to inspire an environment of co-creators and co-conspirators, walking together with God and with one another, bearing light to dark places. But breaking the mold isn’t easy business. People still talk to you like you’re fancy and important and parental and learned and super spiritual. It’s hard work to try and get Kyndall more obvious than the role she wears and the title she bears, and it is sometimes difficult to convince myself that I am more than role I wear and the title I bear and to keep in mind that all of us right down to the babies are priests to one another.
But then this week, through no effort of mine, the mold got all broken, praise God. I mean, the circumstances were ugly but the responses were a thing of beauty that I’m still admiring. I plopped right down like a newbie to pain and you ministered to me. You took up the towel and washed my feet and I swallowed my pride and let you.
The thing is, I am grateful for all the candles you’ve lit on my behalf, but it still looks dark to me. Too dark to think, too dark to pray, too dark to trust. But I’m learning that having the courage to face your darkness can feel like you’re giving into the darkness and being swallowed by it like a coward, like Jonah running away and being overcome by the waves and the whale. That’s what grief feels like, but it’s not what grief is. Grief is walking straight into the setting darkness. You know you can’t run from the dark, so you square your shoulders, set your face to the east, and let the blindness come. Your friends will tell you that the sun also rises in the east, which means despite the terror of the looming night, you’re actually facing the right direction. You can’t know in that moment whether your friends are right about the sun, because grief clouds your head and fogs your hope. But this isn’t a failure to feel that your world’s gone fuzzy, so I’m learning. It’s all a part of becoming who it is you’re meant to be—to enter something really hard without knowing for sure what’s on the other side of pain.
When you’re at the place in life where you feel a hurt so deeply you cannot get out of bed, it turns out that the season of Advent belongs to you. It’s your dark night of the soul and it’s your impossible promise of coming light.
When you sit in darkness under the threat of loss and buckled by the heavy weight of life and risk, then you’re primed for light; you just don’t know it yet. You’re in that spot where God will seek you out and shatter your night and bind up your wounds and make you whole and send you stars that point to a Savior. You don’t know for sure if that’s the truth, because the night is scary, but even before there’s a single glimmer of the rising sun, there will be a prophet or two to hold out hope on your behalf. That’s the Big Announcement for which Zechariah’s son was born into the world to proclaim: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
It’s kind of like being outside at night, and you would be completely blind, except you’ve got the moon, though the moon is sometimes only a sliver. You know the moon isn’t real light, only a reflection, and maybe that scares you to walk the night by the light of the moon. But how is it that your friends could reflect such light into your heart at all if there wasn’t a Son somewhere around the curve of the earth, on his way to break in from on high?
Based on Luke 1:76-79: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Audio available here.