O rising Light, brightest of angels over the earth sent to mankind, and righteous ray of the sun, resplendent beyond stars, all seasons with your presence You endlessly illumine. So now in distress Your own creation implores most boldly that You send to us the bright sun, and come Yourself that You may illumine those who long since, covered with smoke and darkness here, have sat in eternal night. Enfolded by sin, they had to endure the dark shadow of death. —Antiphon 5, the Old English Advent (ca. 970-990 CE)
Phototropic, that’s what we are. The Earth, born as it revolved around the sun, takes its whole character from the regularity of those revolutions and also the rotations on its axis. Life lives, or not, depending on the regularity and availability of sunlight. A funny example is the picture sunbathers make all lined up in crowded rows on the beach, all with their sunglasses on! All earthly life orients itself to the sunlight. That is, we’re phototropic.
We Christians have made light a symbol, as almost every other religion and culture has. A visit to Stonehenge reveals the lengths a people will go to honor this cosmic commodity. For our part, we chose to set the date of Christ’s birth, otherwise wholly unknown, very close to the winter solstice, just as the longer days begin the Son/Sun appears just after the longest night. Jesus brings us the dawn, and drives back the enemy of darkness.
We use the word darkness in a metaphorical way, of course. Sure, we suffer from physical darkness, which is why in the northern hemisphere, we light extra lights at this time of year.
Isaiah obviously meant more than that when he preached:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
What darkness is meant here? Darkness means ignorance. Ignorance of social or divine law is moral darkness, evil because it destroys our humanity. Helen Keller was asked which of her three senses she would wish to have back, perhaps her eyesight? She said, There is something worse than being blind—it is having sight but no vision, that is, to have no moral or ethical sense.
But many of us experience a different, painful darkness, to which Isaiah and Jesus also made reference, I believe—emotional darkness. We experience this kind of darkness when the burdens of life close in on us, when difficulties overwhelm us and every door seems closed with the death of opportunity. Or when we are separated by death from someone important to us, from a spouse or a family member. Maybe a friendship didn’t work out, and we still don’t know why. Or, simple geography—in separation we just miss others whom we love.
It is the darkness from feeling unloved—we experience grief when the love we count on is withdrawn. As demonstrated in the lyrics of this song from the ‘60s (you may recognize):
When the truth is found to be lies And all the joy within you dies
When the garden flowers, baby are dead, yes and Your mind, your mind is so full of red
Tears are running down They’re all running down your breast And your friends, baby They treat you like a guest—[meaning, “you don’t really belong here with us.”]
These lines actually capture the way Christians define darkness: it is the absence of love, love given or love received. It is by any human accounting the most awful of conditions. It pitches us into a grief state, if unaddressed becomes something we call depression.
Christmas seems to bring this out in almost everyone, to one degree or another. Many of us have low-grade griefs which stay submerged all year, until the jolly music irritates and signals: oh, I have something bothering me. But Christmas, fortunately, has a way of forcing us to bring grief to the surface—it’s okay—grief wants out—so let it be known. Remaining in a depressed state is a refusal to live openly with loss—let that loss and grief be known.
Is that why the demoniac in our gospel lesson felt threatened by Jesus’ approach? [Mark 5:1-12.] This wild and distressed man has a peculiar response to Jesus-- When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” He would seem to be mocking Jesus, feigning obeisance to royalty by bowing before him, even calling him Son of the Most High God (had he overheard people calling Jesus that?), then— immediately he repulses Jesus as if he recognized his healing power and didn’t want it. Here was a man whose inner pain was mirrored by his outer, self-inflicted punishments—what an exact parable of someone refusing to let his loss come to the surface, this man literally lived among the tombs in which his loss is buried. He’s not going to be fooled into joy by this wandering preacher—oh, no!
Well, for us among our tombs, Christmas cheerfulness doesn’t match our inner state—and certainly not the fake cheerfulness of the commercial Christmas. So people feel moved to have their grief validated publicly in special religious services to address the mood. I have led some of those services in the past, called “Blue Christmas” —there is one taking place on the 21st at the First Baptist Church—only this year, it seems like the whole country is under a cloud and needs to be there.
But I don't believe we really need to have any special Blue Christmas services—I think we accomplish the same thing with Advent services. For, here we find that peculiar combination of joy and sadness, all dressed in purple, openly naming our darkness, which is after all not just a word. If we attend all four of these Advent services, we will go into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a chance for joy. It doesn’t need to be a “blue Christmas.” It only needs to be a true Christmas.
Take the advice of Jefferson Airplane-- When the truth is found to be lies And all the joy within you dies Don't you want somebody to love Don't you need somebody to love Wouldn't you love somebody to love You better find somebody to love
Find somebody to love—that’s the Christmas message. Find a new friend, find a new family. Failing that, find a cause to love, love your church. That’s when the emotional darkness lifts, and so does the moral darkness.
Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Not out of disrespect for the dead, of course; but out of respect for life and life abundant. Dead are the old ambitions, the old dreams (dreams dreamed when we looked better and felt better), dead even are old loves. Jesus comes to cast out the ghosts of the dead among the tombs in which you wander, chained, that you break out of and are chained again.
“Behold, I make all things new,” saith the Lord. And here comes the Son/Sun, rising on Christmas morning. On this Advent Sunday, we take our place in the direct line of the Son-rise.
It does seem today that we are strangers in a strange land called the United States of America. But Christians always were strangers in a strange land. Must it be a “blue Christmas?” Yes, because the real Christmas is a blue-ish (purple) Christmas. Love comes with the light breaking through the darkness.