by Sarah Parsons
The days are short right now where I live, and the nights are long. We North Americans can command light at any moment, with the flip of a switch. I tell myself that natural darkness shouldn't affect me, but somehow it does.
The changes in my activities and my mood are barely perceptible, even to me. I can still do most of the things I like to do. But in summer, when the days are long, I might go out for coffee in the evenings more; I might go to the park and throw the Frisbee; I am more likely to meet someone for a run.
In the winter, even though I could still do most of those things, it's harder to get myself out of the apartment. It's easier to get myself into the bathtub with a book. So I socialize less, and my life changes with the season, partly because of the darkness.
Much of the Christmas story is told in images of light and darkness, images so familiar that I gloss over them in my reading, looking for something else, for a big event.
I take images of light for granted, but this year, for some reason, the images stand out for me: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2, NRSV); "An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them" (Luke 2:9, NRSV).
At a spiritual level, I know something of the darkness the scriptures are talking about. For me, it has to do with a sense of isolation, loneliness, far away from myself, maybe, or from God, or from friends or family. I recently read an article on "desolation," chronic emotional pain, and the article pointed out that pain is not so much the problem; it's the accompanying isolation that we really cannot bear: "The human spirit can survive onslaughts of tragedy and suffering, but it cannot abide complete abandonment."(1)
As hard as it can be to celebrate some years, Christmas is very timely if it comes in the midst of a hard time: "The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light ... on them a light has shined."
If we know what a dark room looks like, we must also know the joy of a candle lit in that room. A small golden light dances on the walls and changes everything.
Suddenly this is a place you want to be; this light is a warm presence with you, even if nothing else about your situation has changed: same room; same furniture; same person sitting in it; same pain, fears and worries; even the same essential darkness surrounding you. But now there's a candle. This is entirely different. This has gone from being an experience of abject loneliness to one of solitude, maybe peace, maybe warmth.
We all find ourselves alone some of the time. We enter the world alone and leave it alone; this is the human condition. This is not to say that we don't need other people; we do, very much, and we get plenty of human companionship along life's way. But in our deepest inner lives, at our very cores, we find ourselves alone with God.
There are two ways we can turn with this aloneness. In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen makes a distinction between loneliness and solitude. Depending on how we approach our own inner aloneness, he says, we can experience an excruciating loneliness, or we can cultivate a garden of solitude.
We can run from our aloneness, frightened and disturbed, thereby intensifying the loneliness. Or we can sit quietly in it, knowing that God is with us ... easier said than done. Nevertheless, God's companionship in our solitude is much like the lit candle that changes everything about the room.
To me, Christmas is about this candle; Christmas says: it's not about the darkness anymore. Focus on the light. It's just a candle, just a bit of light, just a baby born.
It doesn't take our aloneness away, yet it changes our entire experience here, our present and our future. In place of loneliness and anxiety, there is comfort and peace to be found in this room. May we focus on that candle this year, and rest and rejoice.
(1) Luther E. Smith, Jr., "Earth Has No Sorrow that Heaven Cannot Heal," Weavings (September/October, 1993), p. 11.
Sarah Parsons is a Social Worker and author of the Upper Room book A Clearing Season: Reflections for Lent.
Joining friends at The Upper Room in morning prayer on Facebook Live has been an anchor in the storm during recent weeks. In the chaos of trying to figure out how to do ministry in strange and uncertain times, it was a compelling call to stop, breathe, listen, and be in community with those who gather "where the world meets to pray." Join us each day for morning prayer.