The longest night welcomes the light
When I opened my eyes, I was sure it was no later than 5 or 5:30 a.m. The room was still enveloped in a deep darkness and because it was Sunday morning, in late December, the stillness outside was thick and complete. I peered at the nightstand clock and was only mildly surprised that was it was nearly 8 o’clock. For weeks now the days have been increasingly brief with the night stalking the dawn as soon as she arrives. And here in Holland, clouds frequently blanket the heavens, filtering what little light we see through damp grey gauze. So we begin lighting candles in the afternoon, telling ourselves this time of year is gezellig – cozy and rich with opportunities for quiet conversations, warm meals and reading by lamplight.
Today is December 22nd, the fourth Sunday of Advent and the morning after the winter solstice, both days pregnant with the returning of Light to the world. Of all the turning points of the year, New Year’s Day and birthdays, first and last days of school, equinoxes and solstices – it is the intersection of Advent and Winter solstice, inextricably connected, that for me resonate with the most perplexing and palpable mystery.
Advent is the Christian season of waiting and hoping for the in-breaking of Peace, believing in the Incarnation of Love. It is a season for lighting candles in the darkness because we believe the Light of the world will soon shed the light of eternal love and justice on every dark corner of the world. The fourth Sunday of Advent we listen with renewed inspiration to the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, a powerful proclamation of a young woman living over 2000 years ago in the darkness of a land occupied by military might. She sings with joy and resolve while still captive to the powers and principalities of this world.
This time of year, as we wait with all of nature through the longest night of the year, the fulcrum point between the retreat and return of the light, many Christian congregations around the world gather for a “longest night” service where the sacred season of darkness and lament are lifted up as part of our holy journey.
These services hold sacred space for those who don’t exactly find this season to be the most wonderful time of the year. Longing for a former partner, receiving a frightening diagnosis, aching for family who’ve departed this world, deep and real hunger in little bellies and even fear for one’s own safety don’t magically disappear just because Starbucks has switched from pumpkin spice to candy cane coffee.
And for many, the twinkling lights, heart-strings commercials, and warm glow from other people’s windows only serve as an all too stark reminder that they are not welcome in the homes of their birth. When the faces of friends are lit up day and night with the joy of family drawing close, LGBTQ+ people who have been cast aside by their families of birth can find this season particularly painful. Many of us, myself included, have been cast into the outer darkness for choosing to embrace our own inner light, a light given by our Creator to live and love in ways the world does not always understand.
What my eyes can perceive, what my mind experiences, is a darkness that grows deeper and deeper. But what I know in my heart and soul to be true is that the light is already returning even if I can not yet perceive it. Yes, there will be weeks ahead when I will still not believe it, because the darkness will hover and the cold will seep in everywhere, and I will be nearly convinced that warmth and light will never again appear. And then, because of nothing I have done or left undone, the light slowly, surely pushes back the darkness.
And while we still wait, full of hope for days to lengthen and life to spring again from the cold earth, we are invited to stand in that liminal space not only with others who feel the chill of pain and loss, but to also hold tenderly all of our own wounds.
My prayer for you this day is that whatever darkness may haunt your heart it will be gently illuminated by the slow return of the light. So too I pray that if you are able, you are a light bearer for yourself and others. We are the hands and feet.