The annum we describe as 2016 is finally coming to an end. Normally, I lament the end of the year, the swift passage of time, but the past couple of years I’ve been tempted to shred the calendar after I took it down. And that’s just considering my personal experiences. Add in the state of the world and the past year’s datebook might face ceremonial burning.
Yet for some reason, I find myself in a clearing of something I can only call hope.
Last year, Christmas felt like an intrusion. So many personal setbacks…the whole idea of holiday celebrations loomed like a race over increasingly high hurdles, so much so that I quit trying to jump over them and just accepted the penalty for knocking them over. When I mentioned this to friends, they exhibited no surprise. If they weren’t at the same point themselves, they’d been there before and understood. Since 2016 sucked on so many levels, I didn’t have high hopes for this year’s yuletide cheer, either.
My church hosted a screening of A Christmas Carol not long ago. Our pastor tracked down some four or five versions, trying to decide which one to show. She decided on the Albert Finney version from 1971, but offered up the others to us on loan if we wanted to view an alternate. I selected the Patrick Stewart version from 1998. Instead of curling up on my couch with fast food, I found myself inviting a friend over to watch with me and buying a whole host of goodies to snack on while we did. Even the leaking sink and the resulting items stacked up in front of one my kitchen cabinets didn’t deter me. After Ann went home, I pulled up Love, Actually and watched it while ordering gifts for my family. It took me a while to realize it, but eventually, it dawned on me: I had Christmas spirit.
Don’t worry, I didn’t go overboard. Save for a wreath on my front gate and Christmas cards sent by friends, my house is bereft of holiday decoration. I’m never home on Christmas, so it doesn’t seem worthwhile.
In a moment of dizzying epiphany, I realized that Christmas fit in a season of difficulty. We spend a lot of time harking to the past, remembering our best holidays of the past and trying to match or exceed them this year, but the ancient stories that Christians trot out every year are all about finding hope in a bad time. The angels announced the celebrated birth not with, “Great news!” but “Fear not!” Those words get repeated a lot in the Bible. Evidently seeing an angel up close and personal didn’t usually end well, so it was important to say, “We don’t have instructions to smite anyone today!” right up front. Even when they announced the good news, it wasn’t, “We’ve ousted the Roman dictators and installed a democratic regime, and by the way, you’ll never go hungry again!” No, they said a baby had been born. The light of the world, vacuum-packed into the confines of a newborn. Don’t worry, he’s no ordinary infant – but then again, there is no such thing.
This is the lesson handed down from parent to child and pastor to parishioner through all these centuries: You have every right to be afraid, but don’t be. Hope is on the way.
Other religions have different stories. Maybe they don’t feature a baby. Maybe it’s an oil lamp that never goes out, or the return of a god from banishment, or a session of burning the midnight oil (quite literally) in order to make a new robe. Most every faith has some kind of festival in the middle of the winter that centers on light. It’s the time of year that the night is the longest, and down deep, all of us are just a little bit scared of the dark. But something out there must love us, because every year we are reminded, in the way that speaks to our particular soul, that the light is coming back.
If big things look bad, perhaps this will help me to see small things in a new way. Maybe I can forgive people more easily. Maybe I can even forgive myself and my life for not being exactly the way I thought they were supposed to be. If I can’t change the whole world, maybe I can change things for myself, here and now. After all, humanity isn’t actually a unified object. It’s a puzzle, constantly changing, made up of seven billion here-and-nows.
This year, for some reason, I hear Christmas whispering its fundamental message of hope. Nothing may change immediately. If I look at 2017 objectively, it portends disaster as much as possibility. But the message still resonates – the dark, whether of sky or circumstance, is not forever.
The light is coming back.
Kimberly wishes you all a happy new year, and a candle in your personal darkness.