A friend of mine recently experienced a violent trauma, which would be enough to shake anyone’s trust in the world. Except she’s experienced violence so many times in her life that she’s been struggling not to give up. She’s finding limited comfort in nature and in trees losing their leaves and regaining them, but she’s lost faith in her higher power and anything better coming.
As she spoke to me, all I wanted was to make the hurt go away. But while I believe she will move through this darkness, I also can’t tell her she’s wrong. The world is a violent place. As much as I also believe it is a beautiful place, who am I to tell her that? It seems more trite than helpful given what she’s experienced.
I’ve been thinking so much about her in the lead up to Christmas. In the northern hemisphere, we’ve been in the darkest time of the year. I don’t like the darker days, just like I don’t like the discomfort of being in a dark place emotionally and psychologically. Just like I don’t like watching my friend in her darkness. Although I’m finding that these times are often opportunities to delve deep inside myself and find more clearly who I am and make needed changes, it’s easy to get caught up in the pain and discomfort. These moments can feel hopeless.
The winter solstice just passed, however. It’s only a minute and a half lighter each day. While I know intellectually it’s happening, it will take some time before I perceive the change. In a couple days, Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus. A helpless baby born to parents in poverty and in the midst of a migration. Just as I don’t notice the slight lengthening of the days immediately after the solstice, most of the world did not perceive a change in the moment of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was just another baby and most people had no idea he was born. Yet in thirty years, he would begin a ministry that would change the world.
Some people point out that December 25 is an arbitrary day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Theories abound about why it was chosen, especially since for many early Christians, it wasn’t even an important date. The largest celebrations were reserved for the arrival of the magi and Easter. The most prevalent theory is that it was chosen to counteract pagan celebrations centered around the winter solstice. I know many people who use this as an example of why religion is arbitrary and irrelevant. For me, it was an example of how Christianity is a human construct that is not infallible.
Except I’ve come to appreciate that we celebrate the story of Jesus’ birth near the solstice and the return of longer days of light. Because it’s a reminder that I can’t always see the change that is at hand in the world. It may come from the most unexpected of places, including the birth of a helpless baby born in less than ideal circumstances. The story gives me hope. Not certainty. Even those who may have recognized the importance of Jesus’ birth at the time couldn’t have had any idea how it would play out and no doubt it didn’t look like what they imagined it would.
When I wake up at 3 am worrying about whatever my latest fear is, I think about Jesus’ birth and remind myself that I don’t know what’s at foot in the world. I know that the future won’t look anything like what I expect, but I do know it will include beauty. Being able to celebrate Jesus’ birth just as the light starts getting a little longer each day seems like grace to me. A double dose of hope and a reminder that the darkness doesn’t last forever no matter how bad it may seem.