catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 22 :: 2013.11.29 — 2013.12.12


Celebrating in the darkness

It’s the most wonderful time of year, you know? With commercials telling us that every kiss begins with Kay before showing expensive cars sporting giant bows that appear in driveways (not our own, of course), it must be wonderful for sure. Except when it’s not.

I remember all those Christmas Eves when my daughter was so young. There I was, a single mother who had always dreamed of assembling and wrapping Santa gifts with my husband in front of Christmas tree lights and a roaring fire in the fireplace. In my dreams it was always cozy, always fun, and always so…well, perfect. Instead, I sat on the floor alone wrapping gifts into the wee hours of the morning, because the process takes much longer by yourself than with a partner. I felt more alone on Christmas Eve than on any other night of the year.

I remember the Christmas when my mother, sister and I held vigil at my parents’ house while my father and brother sat at my grandparents’ house in a town an hour away, keeping their vigil at the bedside of my dying grandmother. We had our own Charlie Brown Christmas tree that year, a pitiful looking cedar we dug up from along the fence line in the pasture. I don’t think we bothered to put ornaments on it.

There was the Christmas when my sister, Joy, was too sick to leave her house anymore. We went to see her in small groups to keep from tiring her out too much. When my sister-in-law and I were there, Joy told us to go through her closet to see if there were any clothes that we might like to have. She wouldn’t be needing them anymore.  

So when the bright lights and jolly songs begin playing, I am well equipped to recognize that look of pain in the eyes of parishioners, no matter how hard they try to hide it behind a mask of fake smiles. There is no holiday party, no Christmas carol sing-along, no beautifully wrapped gift that can fix the source of that pain.

That is why, four years ago, our church started holding Blue Christmas Service. Also known as a Longest Night Service, it is held on December 21, the longest night of the year. It is the night when darkness overwhelms, seeming to last forever. We gather in the darkness. We sing no “happy” sounding songs. Instead, we sing songs of longing and read psalms of lament. Then we light candles as a form of prayer — one candle for each loss, for each heartache, for each of the tears we carry into the service.

It is when we begin to acknowledge our pain in this season that something strange begins to happen. With each acknowledgement, with each candle lit, the darkness becomes less oppressive. The light in our midst grows, and with it our hope for better days ahead.

But then there was last Christmas.

Last year, the entire nation was reeling from the bloodbath in Newtown, Connecticut. The grief from the loss of so many innocent lives left us confused and numb. Holiday lights now looked almost garish and happy Christmas songs sounded downright sacrilegious. I wasn’t sure how to lead our small gathering from the overwhelming darkness in which we found ourselves back toward the light, because I was wondering myself where the light had gone.

My plan was to set up a memorial to the 26 victims of the school massacre by lighting 26 candles in their memory. This would be in addition to the candles those in attendance would light as their own personal prayers. But when I arrived at the church to set up for the service, I discovered that the church had no power. We still held the service by candle and cell phone light, but I was unable to set up the space as I had hoped. The small group that braved the cold and dark proceeded the best we could. We read scripture by candlelight. We sang a capella. We lit candles as prayers. I concluded the service with the words from John 1:5 — “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The service came to a close. We exchanged hugs and blessings, but very few Merry Christmases. I turned to the communion table where the wax was now dripping from candles burned low. Only a handful of people had been in attendance. From the number of candles burning, I could see that their prayers had been many. I counted before extinguishing them. One, two, three…26…27!

The meaning of the number was not lost on me. Tears rolled from my eyes. I had planned on setting up a memorial for the 26 victims of the massacre, but 27 people actually died that violent day one week earlier. I wanted to forget the 27th death. God did not. Adam Lanza, the source of so much pain, suffering, violence and grief was one of God’s little lost sheep. It is easy for us to love the innocent ones — not so much the ones who go astray. Yet God loves us all.

27 candles burned in a darkened church sanctuary on the longest night of the year. Their light pierced the darkness, reminding me of the hope that could not, would not, be extinguished. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And if that is all we can find to celebrate, then I believe it is enough. 

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