The music has been playing 24/7 on select radio stations since early November reminding us that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. I walked out of a Yankee Candle Shop on a Friday around that same time because I just couldn’t deal with “Frosty the Snowman” being pumped over the store speakers, and the inundation of the scents of pine and cinnamon and fake baked holiday goods attempting to lure me into making a purchase. It gave me a headache instead.
I know all too well the pain of the holiday season, and I know I am not alone. For some it’s the first holiday since a loved one died or the anniversary of a death from years ago. Some have only just recently experienced a soul-crushing loss and are still reeling. Some feel as if they are holding the pieces of lives shattered by depression or anxiety or trauma. For a few it’s the bitter loneliness of the season, facing the reality of sitting down alone to bowl of canned soup for Christmas dinner while memories of more festive years play on in their heads.
We want life to go back to the way it was before. Or at least I do. I want my mom to have met my daughter, to be there as she opens a Christmas present and see her face express sheer delight and run and give her Nena a huge hug. Or if nothing else, I long for a single picture of the two of them for Olivia to cherish for the rest of her life. That even though she wouldn’t have the memories, she’d have the photo of her with her grandmother. But mom died two months before Olivia was born. She will never experience the utter Christmas extravaganza my mom would create for her children and grandchildren each year.
Many people don’t recognize that the biblical metaphor for the season of Advent is the Israelite period of exile. It tends to be a forgotten piece of the story—we don’t often teach our Sunday School kids about the time when a foreign army rushed in, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple, killed many of the political and religious leaders, and carried off the 50,000 survivors into captivity. Some of those overlooked books of the Hebrew Scriptures detail the stories of captive Israel that wanted desperately to be ransomed by Emmanuel. While they were there they became masters of writing songs of lament. Songs describing the darkness they found themselves in.
A couple of weeks ago my good friend and fellow priest, Rich Simpson, mentioned a lament song crafted by Bob Dylan, one I admit that I had never heard before.
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t let me heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…”
Rich suggested that even though he likes both Dylan and this song a great deal and that its message speaks to a society like ours that can often feel overwhelmed, we as Christians need to proclaim an alternate version, a message of hope: “It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.”
Because that’s what the prophets did for the Israelites when they found themselves captive in Babylon. They held out the hope and grace of God that while it was terribly dark, they needed to just hold on. “It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
We know this in our bones, of course, as the winter equinox now lies in our rearview mirror. By the end of the month we’ll add 3 minutes of daylight — not a ton, but heading in the right direction. By the end of January it’ll be another hour. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.
Sometimes when we walk through periods of intense darkness, we forget what the light even feels like. We cannot recall the joy we once had, or think of it only bitterly as a time when we should have known better about the hard realities of life. But the message of God for those in exile is ultimately one of hope. That even though it may seem like we’ll never get out of the darkness, that we can trust in the deep love of God who will not forget us. God will not be separated from us. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.
As you journey in the days ahead I would say simply to be gentle with yourself. Do not expect yourself to be brimming with holiday cheer. Recognize that there are times in life when the darkness slides in and no amount of faking it will make it go away. But I would also say to not lose hope. To remember that even though it is not light yet, it is indeed getting there. That in the birth of this one who is to come we are reminded of God’s faithfulness. Emmanuel will indeed come and ransom us from our captivity. May that hope hold you in the days ahead, and may you feel the presence of God’s light as it breaks upon a midnight clear once more. Amen.