When I moved to Seattle in 2001, it was late November. I was coming from a farm in rural Oregon, and I landed in a borrowed house on what Seattleites call Capitol Hill. There was a lot to get used to in that move, of course. Traffic. People. A new, large congregation to serve.
But this time of year, as the anniversary of my call to Seattle comes around, one of the things I remember the most about that move is the nighttime light. Actually let me put that differently. What I actually remember is the lack of darkness. In rural Oregon, (when it wasn’t overcast of course) at night I could see the stars. I could see the Milky Way.
In Seattle, there was a street light right outside my bedroom window. Even when it was night, it felt like it was daytime. Maybe this was all the more jarring to me because it was winter time. We were approaching the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. But in the city, with that light streaming in through my windows all night long, it was hard to tell.
I only spent one winter in the city of Seattle. Now I am 25 miles and a ferry ride north of there, and back in the country. I am once again more grounded in the rhythms of the seasons. This time of year, I do my morning and evening chores in the dark. I marvel at how the dogs find their way, running along barely visible paths. I only dare walk slowly and carefully. I wonder at the way my sheep find their way from the barn to the field with only the light of moon and stars or many nights not even that. In the evening when I open the gate from their pasture, I try to count those same sheep as they trot by, heading toward their warm and dry nighttime shelter. It is so dark that I often miss one or two of the black ones who are so hard to see. Then I have to turn on my flashlight and double check that everyone has made it safe inside.
In the church community this time of year, of course, we are preparing for Christmas. This season of preparation is known as Advent. The Bible doesn’t actually say when Jesus was born so hundreds of years later when the church officially named December 25th as the day of Jesus’ birth it was speculation. In fact, there is still great debate on how and why that date finally became the one we celebrate. It is a fascinating exploration into the strange minutiae of theological discourse. I will spare you that.
Nevertheless, the metaphor cannot be missed. December 21st in the northern hemisphere is the winter solstice. On the longest night, the darkness is deep. It can feel like it will never end.
Spiritual journeys are like that too. Spirituality is not all about summer and sunshine in our souls. We all have times of darkness as well, when we cannot see any light. In the 15th century the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross acknowledged this spiritual season when he coined the term “the dark night of the soul.”
In the ways our cultural celebration of Christmas has evolved, we can sometimes feel like the harsh light of commercialism and light-hearted festivities leaves little room for those of us who are in a season of grief or pain. Like country folks living in the city under a street light, we can feel disoriented. So in addition to our wonderful Christmas Eve services, tomorrow night at our church we will observe the solstice with a Longest Night service. It will be a time to name our struggles and to be together in the darkness. No need to be “happy holidays” merry.
And yet, God’s light remains. When the earliest Christians sang, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” it was a profound affirmation that “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Even on the farm, at this time of year, I put up my Christmas lights. My house is far from the road. No one really sees the tree I have carefully placed in my window and the lights I have strung on the porch roof except me, my animals, and anyone who happens to visit my place at night.
But I love looking up from my morning chores and seeing the lights from the tree in the window. I love coming home after a long day and seeing the red, yellow, green and orange lights that outline my house and beckon me to the warmth inside. I like to imagine my animals enjoy the lights too.
In this season of Advent, of Solstice, and of Christmas, may you know that wherever you are on the road, God is with you. There will be a way, even in the dark. There will be light, held for you even when you cannot hold it yourself. The sun will return. The light indeed shines. And the darkness will not overcome it.
Sacred Advent. Blessed Solstice. Merry Christmas.