by Sara Miles
I used to really love Christmas as a kid, and couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly be surly about it: sparkly stuff everywhere, shiny presents, fabulous blinking lights, way too much sugar, that bright turpentine smell of pine trees, even—at least where I grew up–– real snow. In my twenties, I realized, OK, there might be a few issues with, you know, capitalism. And families. People complained about depression, dysfunction, debt, the whole tacky Christmas-industrial complex…still, I thought the day was kind of fun. Lighten up! What’s wrong with a little tackiness? Have some eggnog!
But then, in middle age, I started going to church, and I got it: Christmas is just really disappointing, compared to, say, Easter. Holy Week, that’s the real thing. Christmas? It’s almost not a Christian holiday.
Or so I thought. But it turns out Christmas is like Easter. As my friend Gabe, who’s eight years old, explained to me a few days ago when we were discussing the similarities, “Both days are when Jesus comes alive.” Christmas is totally about resurrection.
Which means, of course, that Christmas is also about death.
The week before Christmas is the darkest of the year. Last Sunday, there was a lot of crying at church. People sobbed with the weight of their losses: a father in intensive care, a sister dead after terrible illness, a son in jail, beloved friends in hospice and hospital, a long-gone mother whose absence felt painfully vivid. I held one mourner in the kitchen, weeping with her, then walked home as the afternoon light was fading.
On Monday, I ran into one of the teachers from the elementary school across from my house, who was standing on the sidewalk watching parents pick up their kids. “I just miss my mom so much,” he told me, and pulled out a crumpled snapshot showing him, a 62-year old gay man with long black hair, stroking the face of a tiny little 90-year old Chinese lady in a bed jacket lying under a pile of quilts. “I took care of her as long as I could, dressing her, feeding her when she couldn’t feed herself,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I called her my baby at the end. Oh,” he said, “oh, I just don’t want to do Christmas this year without her.” The sun set by five that night.
On Tuesday evening, we sang evening prayer in the chapel, beginning with the O antiphon: O Dayspring, brightness of life everlasting, and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. A bank of candles flickered in front of the icon of Mary, and we sat in darkness praying for a woman who had just died, leaving behind her wife and a six-year old boy.
On Wednesday, it was colder, and the sun set before five. At night, unexpectedly, the doorbell rang: it was a friend of ours who’d been at the bedside of a friend dying of brain cancer. He got weepy as he told us how she gathered the people she loved to say goodbye. “I’ve been so happy,” she told them, “to be alive. And now I’m just falling, falling into death.”
On Thursday, I woke up in the dark, hauled myself out of bed and went to work. A man came by the church who said he’d lost interest in living after his sister died four months earlier: he wanted to play me a message of her voice saying “Te quiero, I love you”, and then he leaned forward to whisper, “I know everyone dies, but my sister? This destroys me. I have some bad words for God: why would he take her?” Then in the evening another man came and told me about making Christmas bread from a recipe passed down from his grandmother to his mother, who’d died earlier this year, and how he started crying when he realized there was nobody alive left to call for help with the recipe. “Maybe I need fewer memories,” he said. By the time I got home, it had been dark for more than four hours.
On Friday the day was even colder and the dark more complete, and then it was Saturday, the solstice, the longest night of the year. I couldn’t sleep. I prayed: O Dayspring, brightness of light everlasting, and sun of righteousness, Come and enlighten us who sit in darkness, and the shadow of death.
Christmas is Easter. We wait for Jesus in Advent the way we wait for Jesus in Lent. And in both seasons, we have to pass through death in order to find him, blazingly alive, the sun of righteousness.
Death is a fact of life that happens all year long, in every time and place and circumstance. But the reason why Christmas and Easter are actually Christian holidays is because they tell us the truth beyond that fact, and reveal the wild, real promise at the heart of our faith. The promise that, as Gabe says, Jesus comes alive. That Jesus is born to us, dies for us, and rises from the dead, trampling down death by death, to pull us up from our graves, to bestow life.
At Christmas and Easter we get to see more clearly how God is always making light and life out of darkness and death. How life can spring from the womb of a humiliated girl on a winter night, how life can rise before dawn from the tomb of a crucified man. How death has no final power. Because at Christmas and Easter Immanuel appears to those who wait in darkness and the shadow of death: to share our suffering, and to share the love of God.
Last week, before the winter solstice, I had a hard time sleeping. I’d go to bed early and be woken with a start in the middle of the night by the brilliance of the nearly-full moon, its cool light pouring through my window and illuminating the whole room. I remembered how, when my daughter was young and I was working as a journalist far away from home, I’d call and tell her to look outside for the moon. “It’s the same moon,” I’d say, missing her terribly, “that I see where I am. Even when we’re not together, remember we’re both looking at the same moon.”
The moon that kept me close to my child is the same moon Mary saw as she waited, pregnant, in the dark; the same moon that Joseph saw when an angel awoke him from sleep. It’s the same moon that Jesus saw in his longest night on earth. For all humanity, the same moon can be a sign of Immanuel, meaning God is with us: we’re not alone.
Because the moon reflects the sun. Even when we can’t see the sun, we know by the light of the moon that it’s there. And even when I’m sleepless or troubled or grieving, I know that God–-the true sun of the world, ever more risen and never going down––is with us: and I can see God’s love reflected by other people, who shine with it and help illuminate the dark. Who hold me and pray with me and give me a Kleenex when I cry, whose bodies help comfort me through the night.
Today, even by a few minutes, the day will be longer. The sun will give a little more light, and the same moon will shine on all of us, reflecting the glory. Another child will be born today, and tomorrow, and on Christmas Eve, and on Good Friday, bringing resurrection, God’s new life to the world.
Arise, shine, for your light has come.
Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. Her new book is City of God (Jericho Books, February 2014.) Originally preached for Advent IV.