When Christmas Feels Dark

I straighten the stocking on it’s fireplace hook and take a step back to evaluate my work. Something about the way the loop is sewn to the stocking itself makes it resistant to my every attempt to help it hand plumb, and I concede that it is good enough.

Decorating for Christmas is a bit of a sacred tradition in our home. We don’t welcome any other holiday throughout the year with decorations — you won’t find easter eggs or valentine’s hearts around this home. But at Christmas, every surface we can find becomes host to a tree or a star or some twinkling lights. 

I always want to believe that this season of Advent brings out the best in me. That decorating in festive lights postures me towards my home, neighbors and family with generosity and good will, just like the Christmas hymns sing. I want to believe that these Christmas lights in every corner of our little home will be mirrored in some way in my inner person. And yet, as I stand at this mantle straightening this stocking, I’m more aware of my own inner darkness than ever before.

This is the first year we’re hanging three stockings at the fireplace as we anticipate our first little one joining the family in the spring. We didn’t think we’d be able to conceive, and ever since we did my fear of losing this child has only grown proportional to my growing belly and strengthened with little girl’s strengthening kicks. I know this anxiety would be by my side in any season of pregnancy, but there’s something vulnerable about the Christmas season. Something about hanging a stocking for our little girl that reminds me of my doubts, life-long fears, anxieties and weaknesses. 

I want Christmas to bring out the light in me. But somehow, it always seems to remind me of the shadowed places in my heart. 

The Christmas commercials that picture idealistic family celebrations remind me of my own broken relationships. The cheery store greeters handing my flyers for Christmas sales remind me of my financial worries. The decorations on the dining room table remind me of the friends I long to share this table with — those I miss, and those friendships I long to make. 

And I think this is why the season of Advent (the days leading up to and following the celebration of the coming of Christ) has such a profound grip on me. It’s a season all about preparation and waiting. While the world around us grows saccharinely cheery the minute thanksgiving dinner ends, Advent is all about waiting for the lights to come on as we anticipate the one who was born to be the light of the world. And do you know what it means to wait for the Light? It means it’s dark. 

My Anglican friend, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote about this much better than I can in her recent New York Times piece

To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.

The prophet Isaiah echoes this as he, from the other side of the first Advent, looks forward to when the promised Savior will be born:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9:2)

On an entire land that was blanketed in darkness — on an entire people group who had made their home in a land of deep darkness — on them the lights flipped on. A light broke onto the horizon. Why? How?

BECAUSE… to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Because a Savior came into the darkness, there was light for the people. Because the Savior stepped fully into their world of deep darkness and shadowed places, a warm glow appeared on the horizon of redemptive history. 

This could not have happened any other way. Just as there is no way for light to shine except into the darkness, there was no way for our Savior to come except to come in our human flesh, into our broken world, to walk the land of darkness with us. To be the light, our Savior had to leave the warmth of heaven and join us in our dark world. 

And He did. He came to us. He bore our burdens. He felt Himself the strain of family relationships, the fear of death and dying, the pain of dread, the need for courage, the uncertainty of financial lack, and the loss of friendship. He joined us in the darkness of our stocking-hanging fears so that the light would shine on us. 

There is no other faith system in the world that offers this kind of Savior, this kind of God. There is no other god willing to become fully human, able to remain fully God, bear fully the brokenness of our human frailty, and save us from the darkness of our sin. Only this God. Only Jesus.

This Advent season, we have the privilege of letting every dark corner of our hearts remind us of the One who is Light. When we feel the wince of pain from strained relationships, when we feel the burden of what or who is missing around our holiday tables, when we look ahead and fear all the unknowns, we have a God who will join us in those dark moments. How do we know? Because He already has. At the manger, He joined us in our darkest, most desperate human hour. And so we can, with confidence, welcome Him to our fireplace hearth. Invite Him to be light in our shadowed places. And, to remind us again and again, to watch the horizon for the full break of day. 

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