Christmas in a Darkening Time

Advent doesn’t begin until November 27th but already, for the past several weeks, lights are being hung across houses and Christmas trees are appearing in living rooms. At a friend’s apartment on the weekend I looked across the evening darkness to the other high rises. It was startling to see how many homes were already filled with the lights and Christmas trees.

Amidst a time of anxiety we’re more eager than ever to grab hold of something that doesn’t change, that’s solid, a tradition that gives us intimations of stability in disruption. Advent/Christmas (the latter is familiar to most people; Advent has become a practice for those limited numbers who form their life around the Christian calendar) is a search for something the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas intimates – this longing for tradition and stability in our cascading crises:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight…
(Here we are) here we are, as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us…
Gather near to us once more…
Oh, (here we are) here we are, as in olden days…
Happy golden days of yore
(Faithful friends) faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Just like all the times before
Through the years (we’ll be together), yeah, we’re gonna be together…

Writer(s): Blane Ralph, Martin Hugh Lyrics powered by

This song catches the longings and fears of many of us right now. We’ve become so tuned in to the disruptions coming at us like never ending sunami’s. A lot of us in leadership have never experienced so much disruption for ourselves and our people. It’s a hard place to be. The song expresses this yearning for some stability in the midst of it all – hence the early appearances of lights and trees and, soon, the music. This time the nostalgia carries a visceral longing to find again a place of stability, a rooting in traditions that make sense of the unraveling. 

This year I’m not mocking the “schmaltz” and commercialization (at least not so much). Something profoundly upsetting is happening. People feel vulnerable, cast adrift in an economy, a politics, a society coming apart. We need stability, somewhere where our feet won’t slip. Among leaders with whom we’re in relationship we begin our times together with Dwelling in the Word. Right now we’re dwelling in Psalm 121. It begins with the words: I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? Then it turns to the response of a people on a journey in terrifying places: Our help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Each time we dwell in this text it speaks directly to the experience of leaders. Why? The Psalm describes the kind of disruption we’re experiencing. As leaders we feel like our foot is slipping on the slopes of change and disruption. Like our people, we are wanting a place of tradition that stabilizes and keeps us from falling.

Disruption and change are our daily diet. But no one can last for very long on such a diet. Real-time examples are all about us. Everyday we get reports of what’s happening in our hospitals and emergency rooms as the normal patterns of care and triage are being disrupted. The old normal has stopped working. It’s hard to figure out alternatives in the midst of people’s exhaustion. It’s painful to see doctors and nurses, cleaners and orderlies, ambulance drivers and anxious waiting rooms full of the sick in such distress – each trying to cope with “mountains” of disruption where they’re feet are slipping.

Where is the light? The early coming of Christmas is understandable. Church leaders I know are struggling with the tension between the disruptions that are upon us and the desire for stability and tradition. There are no quick answers. Right now we want to experience Christmas like the song above. But we know that’s not the story of Advent. We know that THAT Advent was hard and bitter, it meant death as much as birth, and it invoked cascading disruptions among innocent, powerless people. That Advent required a patient waiting in the dark. In our unraveling we need companions who will travel with us in this dark place. Ours is a moment in which we are struggling to find the practices that point us to  the One who comes into the dark. This One who neither slumbers nor sleeps is calling us to something very different from the churches we now inhabit.