We hear a lot in Advent about Christ as the light that breaks into the darkness. At this time of year of increasing darkness in our calendar year, the words in John’s gospel about Christ as the light, and the new creation, seems especially apropos. Where I live in the Northeastern United States, the sun sets around 4 pm each day—so out go our Christmas lights, the illuminated star in the window, and multicolored lights on the Christmas tree. We are people of both body and soul, and so paying attention to our bodies and our need for warmth and light in the midst of darkness by these small, symbolic gestures can be an act of faith, too.
It’s also a reminder that Christmas is about Christ, the cosmic Christ, breaking into a world of darkness. We head into the holidays in a world where tinsel and trimmings can’t disguise challenges our world faces in matters such as racism, gun violence, war, religious conflict and violence; and then many people also head into the holidays with personal burdens that they carry as well, as with those who are experiencing Christmas for the first time after the death of a family member or those who feel isolated and alone on Christmas. I visit a prison and am always mindful that my brothers in prison experience a mixture of the sadness of being separated from family either physically or sometimes deeper, unreconciled breaks, and the joys of Christmas, darkness and light together. This world is the world that Christ breaks into, and lest we forget it, his mother and Joseph are denied room in the inn right before his birth, and they must flee the danger posed by Herod immediately after his birth. Christmas itself is a moment of rest and joy, a sparkling, joyful middle, bookended on either side with real, substantial challenges. Yet in these challenges we are not alone.
Two weeks ago a good friend and colleague of mine died, after a yearlong struggle with cancer. The end came quickly. One day I was greeting him at the door to hear that he had a persistent cough and pain that would not abate, and was thinking of returning to the hospital, and a week and a half later he had passed from this world into the next. The last two days before he parted, he faded in and out of sleep and reported to his wife, who then passed on to us, experiences of seeing a staircase; of meeting others who awaited him; of being told that he had lived well and that a room was waiting for him; and his clearest words of all “God takes care of everyone.” After his death, I felt myself that my friend had crossed over to a place of peace and love and in his parting, communicated, and continues even now to communicate to us that depth of peace and assurance of God’s care that can only be a grace from above.
The night before his funeral, I dreamed that I was attending his wedding and not his funeral. Initially in the dream, I felt joy for his wedding, saw him going off somewhere, but then awoke very sad that I was to attend a funeral instead. Soon, though, I realized there was a kind of truth in the wedding imagery–death is not mere destruction, but like a new marriage, to the true Bridegroom to whom we all belong. At the funeral itself, in keeping with the dream, his wife and children were clothed in white as a sign of celebration rather than mourning. His life was a gift to us, God’s gift to us. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Even in death, there is new creation.