Christmas is a time to look at the light in the darkness

December 22, 2017

(The Hamilton Spectator – Friday, December 22, 2017)

It’s only December but my thin bones already long for summer. For light. For warmth. Where’s Africa? It’s over the ocean. And I’m on this side, often chilled when I stand at the large window behind my bedroom desk. I look into the darkness, so deep and wide and without form.

Christmas lights are in front. The children made sure. There’s a lit sleigh and whatnot. I can see it from this second-floor window. The neighbours have more lights. Walk east, then south, and the neighbours on Cross Street have their place lit up like Times Square.

The other evening we went into it all, the darkness and the light both, down our street and around the neighbourhood to sing Christmas carols door-to-door. The children’s mother thought of it all. We were a gaggle of men and women and children from several families. I was the official door-knocking greeter. It was something. A throwback in time.

We sang in that darkness. And, of course, we got enough of it wrong because in this season we, all of us, give cards and sing carols and celebrate wrong things with wrong facts.

There weren’t three kings, or wise men, at Christ’s birth. The gospel accounts don’t say how many magi, that is astrologers, visited ancient Israel to present their gifts of worship to the Christ Child. And Mathew’s account makes it clear they visited not at Jesus’ birthplace, but at his “house,” later, sometime before his family’s flight to Egypt.

Shepherds never watched flocks on a cold winter’s night, like the carol says, because Jesus, according to scholars, was likely not born in winter. Angels possibly literally sang of the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, to those shepherds, but the narrative makes it more certain that angels gave their praises in spoken word.

And those angels’ trumpets? Some scholars speculate that Jesus might have been born at the Jewish New Year, called Yom Teruah, or the Day of Trumpets, in Biblical times. But that’s not in the original narrative either.

And so on. The paper pointed it out the other day. I read it in bed.

I once might have cared more about such fallacies, the sort that grow in any culture given enough time and space. Just like I once might have cared more about what’s wrong with the songs, or at least the singers, of my faith.

Now I care less about what we get wrong and more about what we get right. I’m not alone. Some neighbours in their doorways that evening even joined us in song.

I mean, anyone can see the marks and smudges and cracks on any window, like on any person. As Woody Allen put it in one of his movies, “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

But Christmas is not about looking at any flawed window. It’s about looking through a window to see what’s on the other side, that is the light in the darkness. It’s unspeakable light, really, wild and untameable light, because the darkness it shines in is so unbearable.

Yes, if we get one thing right this season, it’s the lights of Christmas. And there is the Christ Child, pulled from the dark womb into this cold world, placed at his mother’s breast. Like any child, he’s full of fear and wonder, both.

“I am the light of the world,” he would later say. “Come follow me.”

It was a remarkable claim that Jesus made repeatedly in various ways, the Prince of the Stars, the eternal God from outside of time somehow putting himself inside to light our way.

And how can this be?

It can be if eternity isn’t the opposite of time, but if eternity is the essence of all time combined: past, present and future in one. I also read this in bed the other night. Spin a multi-coloured pinwheel faster and faster until all the colours bleed into one, into white light. Likewise, think of this with time.

Saying “I am the light of the world,” then, is akin to saying “I am the essence of past, present and future.”

And if this isn’t looking into the face of God, I don’t know what is.

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December 22, 2017 • Posted in ,
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6 thoughts on “Christmas is a time to look at the light in the darkness”

  1. Very much enjoyed this. I will be spending Christmas alone and yet marveling at the wonder of the incarnation and the failure of the church. Unlike Thomas I will not enduring a Canadian winter but will be enjoying Equatorial sun as I spend two months in the Pearl of Africa doing volunteer work which will hopefully improve the lives of a few Ugandans. Roy Godber

  2. Excellent !

    But I always pictured a “normal” birth in a manger & rent clothes for swaddling ? Less pulling and tugging and more support !

    When I delivered (attended) my first birth, and expressed bewilderment at what to do . . . I was encouraged by attending doctors and delivery room nurse to “just support & catch the baby” and “ don’t get in nature’s way” !

    Later I learned patience before tugging and pulling at breech babies ( creates problems) or the contortions of a shoulder dystocia (heart in my throat) apologizing to the mother for the pain and fear she most certainly perceived

    Fear. Dark places in our mind. Waiting for the dawn as a new day was accomplished !

    So spring or winter; singing or angelic spoken word; manger or home . . . The offer of light and reconciliation from fear in darkness . . . That with the innocence of a newborn is plenty of reason to celebrate . . . Regardless of when our societies choose to celebrate a contemporaneous or orthodox Christmas ?

    I so enjoy your work. Felicitations to your family !

    PS Loved your explanation of time . . . Only the novice understands time as a linear event flowing past us as we watch the meandering river of events !

  3. Leny van der Mark

    We know how you feel Tom. I remember our first winter,(after 11 years in South Africa) in cold Ottawa sitting in the basement, asking John when we will go back. The Africa in your blood will never leave you.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family and thank you for the wonderful message in the spec.
    John and Leny

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