Today is the darkest day of the year, and I’m not a fan. Cold is no fun, either. If given the choice, this Florida man would never live above of the 38th parallel. Snow lost its appeal for me after the first few times every car in Washington, D.C. simultaneously performed the blacktop ballet, and whatever blood-borne antifreeze my friends from New England enjoy was left out of my makeup. But it’s the darkness that really gets me. Knocking off work and finding that the sun has already vanished is a little disheartening, even for those of us who don’t suffer any clinical effects from it. And this is something everyone who lives anywhere but the equator feels to some extent, the Sunshine State included.
There’s more going on in the bleak midwinter than just astronomy, though. I think the solstice has a symbolic or synchronous relationship with a kind of twilight of the soul. As daytime reaches its annual minimum, and with it outdoor activity, our worlds shrink a bit, and we become more aware of who we really are in relation to the mirror and to each other. The trees and many of the animals fell asleep months ago. We don’t have that luxury. Winter, with its darkness and cold, is a natural symbol of death. Not only a symbol, but a countdown for each of us. “I have seen many winters,” goes the arcane euphemism for old age. Each winter marks the passing of another year, bringing each of us closer to our own dormition.
The cheer of the year’s best-loved holiday can bring relief. It can also throw sorrow into sharper relief. If the poor man is poorest in comparison to the rich, then those who don’t see cause for celebration feel it most keenly when everyone around them is celebrating. I knew about this phenomenon and the statistics on it well before this time last year, when someone I dearly love took his own life. But now I really understand it. Something I always felt at the back of my chest in December church services when prayers were lifted up for the broken became real to me in a permanent way. Thirty Christmases from now, if the Lord should tarry and grant me old age, I will remember that unnecessary loss as I sing carols with my grandchildren.
But you can hear the solemn notes of Christmas in those very carols, no matter who you are or what you’ve lost. The haunting strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” or “What Child Is This?” echo more than Israel’s long wait for her Messiah. There is a stillness at the manger-side that can only be likened to a funeral—a realization that this Infant greeted by angelic exultation was born to die—that the weight of mankind’s sin and the futility beneath which creation itself groans will fall on His shoulders—that a sword will pierce His mother’s heart as a Roman spear pierces His.
In one of my favorite newer Christmas compositions, Chris Rice sings: “Fragile fingers sent to heal us/Tender brow prepared for thorn/Tiny heart whose blood will save us/Unto us is born.”
It is right that we should hear this grief mingled with joy in the best melodies and lyrics about Christ’s birth. Whatever the historical case for His actually having come into the world on December 25th, it is also right that we should mark the year’s darkest days with the reminder of our Savior’s first Advent. This celebration, as all celebrations, brings into sharp focus the paradox of redemption—the “not yet” which tempers the “already” of God becoming man and bearing our sins. There is work left to do, there are tears yet to cry, and there is blood yet to shed.
Thank God that as His Son joined us at the turning point of history, He joins us again in the longest nights of the year. Even though winter has only begun, every day after His birth is a little brighter. We must still weather the remaining darkness of the Curse, no matter where we live. Death will strip our bones as surely as winter strips the trees. But the light and life of the world has come and has already broken the power of both death and winter. And that light is increasing.