During the past few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of people for whom darkness, to varying degrees, plays a significant role in their life, in some cases overwhelming or even paralysing them.
This has brought home to me more vividly than ever before the intuition that led Saint Francis of Assisi to beg a friend to replicate the scene of Christ’s birth. At that moment, he craved healing, peace and nourishment for his soul. The place was Greccio, a village overlooking the spectacularly beautiful Reiti valley, halfway on his journey home from Rome. It was a time in which he suffered both physical pain and emotional distress. Despite having achieved much as the founder of an impressive spiritual movement, he was suffering.
Christmas in the year 1223 was not unlike the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph had also suffered rejection as well as cold and hunger. They too were on a mission with an uncertain future that would be fraught with risk. A new life, a mysterious and liberating life, would be born against this backdrop—a life that would be heralded by a single source of light, enough consolation to make it through the dark night.
The light would guide others to seek that new life and to find joy in it. It would be enough to have them go home by another way, to be guided by a light that could not be diminished by the darkness. That light would come from a star that was more brilliant than others. Without turning off the night, it would just make the night less hostile. And it would promise a new dawn.
This grace was sufficient for Saint Francis. It brought him peace, enough to face with confidence the difficulties that still lay ahead. The experience of running his fingers along the rough wood of the crib reminded him at once of the cross and the Resurrection. He was reminded that God so loves the world that he sent his only Son in order that we all might have life in abundance, despite the signs of death around and even within us.
That’s the insight that awaits each of us as we approach another Christmas, a feast that is so familiar yet, in so many ways, lies under a tree as an unopened gift. Fortunately, we have two moments each year that invite us to enter the mystery of the treasure that it contains. Advent and Epiphany serve as bookends and beacons, pointing forward and back to the hidden truths that we often gloss over.
Advent means the coming of something. It’s a time of preparation without which Christmas comes and goes with the virtual blink of an eye. Advent serves to stretch our meditation, appreciation and appropriation of a light that is indispensible to surviving and even thriving in the depths of darkness and distress. The grace and grasp of meaning that is the spiritual oxygen of our lives, the light in the darkness, cannot be programmed. It takes time to welcome, embrace and value. Four weeks of anticipation may not be sufficient.
That’s why we’ve also been given a period in which to unpack the gift. The high point for me is Epiphany. I understand it to be the revelation of God’s always surprising appearance through the lens of two particular yet universal biblical accounts of human encounters with divinity, one that is framed by majesty, which is the source of tremendous joy; the other, by poverty that opens onto hope: The magi and the shepherds.
Take time during this Advent season for a pilgrimage of the mind and heart, in the company of the poor shepherds (Luke 2: 8-20) and the magi (Matthew 2: 1-12.) Journey in hope to greet God Among Us. There, if you are faithful to the Light, outside and inside you, God will reveal the gift of true and lasting joy.