December is the darkest month of the calendar year. With the winter solstice falling a few days before Christmas, we live through significantly less daylight this month than any other time of the year.
We might not notice the physical darkness, because a lot of this month is spent filling the darkness with light. We do this literally with lights, trees, and decorations… and we do this figuratively with celebrations, food, gifts, and various works of charity.
Interestingly enough, you don’t need to be religious to bring light in this way. ‘The holidays are enjoyed and celebrated by many who don’t give a second thought to Christ, who is the reason we celebrate in the first place. While we could lament this reality along with the commercialization of Christmas, it ought to offer us pause for self-examination: just what is the difference between celebrating Christmas with faith and celebrating it without faith?
The physical darkness around us at this time of year might help us find the answer.
Just as the darkness of each December is a fact, so too is the existence of a more insidious darkness: the presence of evil in our world. We see this evil manifest in many ways – notably through sin and death, and particularly through our lived experiences of hatred, corruption, crime, among many others.
We see in Scripture that God promises not to leave us in the darkness. Isaiah prophecies that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). John’s Gospel begins by telling us “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). The coming of Jesus marks the fulfilment of God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20).
It is precisely here that we diverge from the rest of the world in our celebration of Christmas.
In our culture, the buildup to Christmas is hard to ignore. Christmas merchandise appears in stores even before Halloween is over. Christmas carols are played non-stop throughout the month of December. All the decorations, celebrations, and charitable actions can fill the time leading up to (and including) Christmas day … and then, on Dec. 26, it’s all over. Life goes on as usual, and for the most part, no one is changed by anything we’ve done in December.
For the Church, it’s a different story. We start Advent later on, and journey through four Sundays which lead to a season of Christmas when we sing some of the Christmas carols everyone else has put away.
We talk about the need to prepare not for an event that will come and go, but for a person, Jesus Christ, who comes to us in three distinctive ways. As we prepare for Christmas, we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of His birth at Bethlehem so many years ago. But we also prepare ourselves to meet Him when someday He comes again – whether that will be tomorrow or a thousand years from now.
Finally, we prepare ourselves to recognize that here and now, in the celebrations and in every darkness we might experience, that He comes to us and abides with us. (As Catholics, we recognize that He is particularly among us today in the Eucharist.) If we are able to enter into the journey that marks these liturgical seasons, we find ourselves changed by the experience in the ways that we love God and love our neighbours.
I recently came across a quote from G.K. Chesterton, from his book Orthodoxy: “Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” It’s meant to be a reminder for us that we believe Christianity is worth whatever it demands of us. To follow Christ means that in certain moments we take up our crosses and turn from some pleasure the rest of the world may be indulging in (the ‘small publicity’ of the pagan.) Whatever pain and sacrifice we experience is done in the context of God’s promise of a much greater good (the ‘gigantic secret.’)
The way in which we celebrate Christmas helps us to live this reality. While the world around us gets caught up in Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we wind down our liturgical year by reflecting on Christ’s return and the end of the world. As we prepare alongside the world to celebrate the holiday of Christmas, we are invited to prepare our hearts for the threefold coming of Christ. And as the world moves past Christmas and into New Year’s Resolutions, we find ourselves just beginning to unravel the mystery of God’s love which has been revealed to us in Christ.
And if you’re paying attention, you might notice that it’s precisely at this point that we start to notice the days are getting longer and that physical darkness no longer rules our days. This is fitting: the more we come to understand that the power of Christ’s love overcomes the power of darkness, the more we come to know the gigantic joy which ought to define our Christian faith.
“And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” –Revelation 22:5
— Mike Landry is chaplain to Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton, and serves as an occasional guest speaker and music minister in communities across Western Canada. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain, Alta. with their five children.