By Burl Salmon
My mother shares the story that my father would hold my sister and me as very small children for hours looking at the Christmas tree until, invariably, we would fall asleep on his lap or up against him, and he would, after he gazed at the tree a little longer himself, finally carry us off to bed, making sure not to wake us out of a blessed slumber. I was too young to remember these moments, but it stands as no surprise that I still linger for hours in front of the Christmas tree long after others have gone to bed, or sometimes stir far earlier than others in the house and gaze at the tree in the pre-dawn, winter hours. My affection for the tree began early, but it really isn’t the tree that captivates me as much as it is the lights that twinkle in the darkness, the brilliant sparks that turn any room into a magical wonderland for a season in the dead of winter.
This year is no different, and I am grateful for the tree in the rectory in Broadmont where I am spellbound, unsurprisingly, by the lights that sparkle amidst the otherwise darkness of a cool and quiet house. Each bulb, like a single candle, dim on its own, can scatter the darkness that has gathered in the room from dusk onward, but with the effect of light added to light, the tree begins to glow until the room warms both in light and in spirit, and darkness is held at bay.
As I have gotten older, I find myself drawn even more to light in the darkness, just as the lights on the Christmas tree at the rectory pierce the inkiness of a winter night.
While we are accustomed to hearing of room-less inns and shepherds and angels singing and a baby in a manger at Christmas (think Linus’ monologue in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which is Luke’s Gospel verbatim), we don’t often pay attention to John’s Gospel in which the writer spends a great deal of energy getting across the centrality of light in the Incarnation, in God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. And so we miss something central to both the holiday and to the lives of those who follow Jesus, and I regret that.
Too often you and I find ourselves surrounded by darkness. Not the darkness at the end and beginning of the day, but darkness that is discouragement, that is the self-absorption of the world around us and the abrogation of a common welfare; darkness that is exclusion instead of inclusion, that creates or perpetuates otherness, that builds walls instead of tears them down; darkness that presses in and down; darkness that is unwavering doubt; darkness that begets further darkness. And frequently we fill our lives with the bustle and busy-ness of activities, especially this time of year, that distracts us enough that we don’t notice the darkness or perhaps inures us to the darkness. But the dark remains.
Which is why the light is essential.
The joy that is Christmas is the light, and in the bleakness of midwinter, in the numbness that is our day-to-dayness, in the struggle that is often life, the light of Christmas breaks into even the Scroogiest of hearts. It scatters the darkness of doubt and fear and warms the souls around it. The light that is Christmas, like the lights on the Christmas tree in a dim and quiet room, add one to the other until finally, irrepressibly, the world around us is transformed, brighter and brighter, warmer and more radiant with every heart changed. The light that is Christmas welcomes and embraces and cares and gives, so that those who know less light, those for whom darkness is closer, may know joy themselves, may know love themselves, may know peace, and may know grace. The light that is Christmas is selfless and inextinguishable, infinite and joyful. The light that is Christmas is love.
Christmas is upon us in all its festive glory: the neighborhood decorating contests, the wassail (it’s milk punch in our house!), the fruitcakes, the parties, the anxieties, the filled stockings, the traffic, the day-after half-price sales—all of it. The pace can be exhausting, and it is easy to become absorbed by the expectations of the season. But in the frenzy that is all around us, I would encourage us to stop and find the light. Look for it. Know it. Share it, one by one, until we, like the lights on the tree, brighten the rooms of our lives, transforming them with love and peace and grace, until we have scattered the darkness around us and made way for the glorious brilliance that is Christmas.
Salmon is the Rector of Falls Church Episcopal.