The shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere is on December 21. In the days leading up to this winter solstice, we notice the daylight hours getting shorter and shorter as the sun sets earlier and earlier.
But inside our churches and our homes, something different is happening. On each of these four weeks of preparation before Christmas, an additional candle on our advent wreaths is lighted. Did you ever notice that the light on the wreath increases as the hours of sunlight decrease, until the sun’s course is seemingly reversed and the days begin to lengthen again?
There are several historical reasons why our ancestors in the faith in the early church chose to celebrate the Lord’s nativity at the end of December. But besides those, it can’t have been lost on them, living in a time before artificial light sources, that there is a beautiful symbol we can appreciate as we celebrate the Light which comes into the world during our darkest days.
Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, celebrated this mystery with the words “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).
We are not strangers to the experience of wandering through the darkness and nights of our lives: often not being able to see, unsure where we are going, or even where we are. This year is the second time the Advent and Christmas season are occurring during these uncertain times of a pandemic. We are no strangers to the darkness and disappointments that come with shattered dreams and unfulfilled expectations. We yearn for peace, joy, love, health, and human community to replace war, sadness, hatred, sickness, and human divisions.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly the kind of world and human situation in which God breaks into our world and into our lives. At Christmas, Jesus the Light of the World shines through, breaking through the darkness, dispelling the shadow of death, and bringing all things to light. Saint Ignatius of Antioch (in 107 A.D.) referred to Christ as the Light who scatters the darkness and molds the newness of eternal life. In this daylight of God’s life among us, we can see things more clearly. We can see the reality of our sin and brokenness and the goodness and greatness and mercy of our God who loves us, shines upon us, and is with us.
As those who share in Christ’s life, we are called to carry this light into the world, letting it burn brightly in us and through us, and shining it where people still walk in the shadow of death. Here one might think of Saint Lucy (Lucia), who tradition says wore a wreath of candles on her head in order to light the way through the catacombs and still have both hands free to carry food to the poor.
Through this breaking-in of God into our lives as the Christ Child born in Bethlehem, an everlasting light now shines in our lives that our world and human frailties cannot extinguish, for “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).
May the Light of Christ shine in your lives this Christmas season with peace, love, hope, and joy. And may you be strengthened and encouraged to be reflections of that Light to others.