Friday, December 17, 2010

Light in the darkness…

When I announced I was moving to Minnesota, multiple people responded in shock, saying, “Whooooaa! That place is sooo cold!” I lived in Kentucky at the time, so take that reaction with a grain of salt. They cancel school there at the threat of snow; six inches might cause historic panic. Still, even outside the South, our state has a reputation for extreme winters. International Falls, along the Canadian Border, prides itself as the coldest town in the country, self-describing as “The Icebox of the Nation”. The population is an unsurprisingly low 1200, although I imagine they’ve more sweaters than the entire state of Kentucky. But even if our frigid reputation is deserved in some ways, that didn’t matter to me. I figured that very few cold weather conditions can’t be solved with the right, and enough, layers. So I packed my hats, dusted off extra sweaters, and excitedly moved north!

What I failed to expect, however, was another facet of Minnesota winter that all the down coats in the world are powerless to confront. The Darkness. Minnesota winter is a dark time, indeed. And sure, before I moved I’d heard about winter days being shorter and nights longer the farther north you lived. That doesn’t mean I anticipated my negative reaction to that fact. Or how pervasive the doldrums would spread across the city the longer our dark days lasted. So my first Minnesota January was a revelation. I moped about, wondering why I was so grumpy and why everyone else was too. Then, I turned on more lights in my home, and strangely felt the positive vibes picking up.

Recently, I learned that circumstance may have something to do with Christmas, especially why the early church chose to celebrate it on December 25. We don’t know, of course, the actual date of Jesus’ birth. The calendar then was different than ours, and besides, neither Mary nor Joseph were important enough (yet!) to merit written records of their daily actions. Luke includes a reference about Gabriel announcing Jesus’ conception on the ‘sixth month,’ but such suggestions are speculative at best, likely Luke’s symbolic additions to provide his story with greater texture and authority. So the early church, when they decided to make Jesus’ birth an annual festival, had to rely not on fact, but the needs of their community at the time. And so, one theory goes, they chose a day near the Winter Solstice, i.e. the longest night of the year. Many early religions honor that day, of course, a sign of order in a chaotic world, or of the ever-revolving nature of the seasons. So it was familiar to these Christians, and had an additional benefit besides.

Remember John 1? “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” In that Gospel, there’re no stories of Wise Men and Angels. All we hear of Jesus’ beginning is this poetic declaration that the Word (i.e. Jesus) helped create the world, and then came to live amongst us as “the light of all people.” John then claims that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In other words, an important early belief about Jesus was this claim about brightness and darkness- maybe as metaphors of holiness v. sin, justice v. oppression, peace v. violence. Or all of the above! Not surprising, then, that they’d choose the Winter Solstice to celebrate light coming into the world, overcoming darkness. Literally and spiritually, that’s exactly what’s happening.

So maybe, as you abide these darkest days of our year, you’ll remember that “the darkness does not overcome.” Spring will return, and bring a pervasive sense of fresh air and joy. And Jesus will be (re)born in our midst, overcoming fear, loneliness, anxiety, and sin with the Light of a new Creation. If we invite him to do so, that is. May that be so, in my life, and yours. The darkness may be natural, and helpful on days we want to catch up on sleep! But it needn’t weigh us down this Winter, for the light of our world has come.

Grace and Peace,

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