A few years ago my father, in an attempt to bring Christmas alive for his grandkids, created a nativity scene in our barn. There had been an unseasonable birth – a few Christmas lambs. We started at the house, bundled up against sub-zero temperatures, following the star (a flashlight attached to a long pole) as we sang “We Three Kings.” Arriving at the stable, we peeked through the door to find my sister-in-law cradling her baby, a lamb at her feet. A ewe and her lamb and one or two of our tamer cattle rustled in stalls nearby as we sang “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” It was a holy moment.
What I remember most clearly, is the frail light of the flashlight illuminating our path and the faint glow from the stable window spilling out across the snow.
I was struck, as I read these two chapters of Chittister, by her description of the ancient hope for light: “light is more elusive than we like to remember. When the ancients observed the winter solstice, it was with thousands of years of fear that once gone, the light might not come back. It might not, this time, return to warm the earth or grow the seeds or prod the harvests upon which they depended for life” (p. 86). Today we are cut off from that fear. Our scientific knowledge assures us that the earth will tilt back toward the sun as it orbits, and that the days will get longer: that spring will inexorably follow winter; that summer will follow spring.
But imagine. Imagine the days getting shorter and shorter. Imagine watching the plants around you stop producing as the light fades. Imagine struggling to find feed for your livestock. Imagine watching your food supply dwindle.
Now imagine the first day you realize the day is a little longer. The first day you realize that the hold darkness seemed to have on the earth has been loosened by the tiniest sliver of light.
That is the celebration of Christmas. Our lives depend on it – on that tiniest sliver of light that we call the Bright Morning Star. The star that appears when night is at its darkest. The star that heralds the dawn.
I am amazed by the death and resurrection. It brings me to my knees. But I am left with my mouth gaping and my legs shaking at the thought that God – God almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing – considered it within his character to step down into the goodness of his creation, and into the darkness we made of it.
The feast of Christmas is not just a merry time to celebrate with friends and family. It is a realization of light. “Christmas is not meant to leave us with nothing more than a child’s perception of what it means to see a baby in a manger scene. It is meant to take us to the level of spiritual maturity where we are capable of seeing in a manger the meaning of an empty tomb. It is meant to enable us to see through the dark days of life to the stars beyond them” (p.88).
It is the frail light of a star, the faint glow from a stable window, that shatters the darkness that surrounds us: then, now, each year, and forever.