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‘Tis the season – amid the shopping frenzy – for reading and hearing various reminders of “what Christmas is really all about.”
They tend mostly to be about organizations that provide gifts and Christmas dinners to poor children and their families. Those are wonderful, laudable things to do, and they are indeed among the things Christmas is all about. They are just not the only things. Here are some reminders to me of a few others.
It is not news that, in our hemisphere, this is the darkest time of year. Although I am not a fan of short days and long nights, Dec. 21 is also one of my favorite days of the year because it holds the brightest promise – a promise celebrated since ancient times.
Starting now, it will get no darker. The movement back to the light begins almost imperceptibly – a few seconds a day to start – but it is inexorable. The light will triumph over the dark, a promise kept with a celestial rhythm set since the beginning of time. It is a promise Christians also observe in the celebration of the birth of Christ; one of His names is “Light of the world.”
I have thought about that more than usual this season because the darkness of human mortality has been closer to me than at most times in my generally very fortunate life.
It is part of the human condition. We are not built to last. As one of my favorite writers observes rather caustically from time to time, “The chances of death are 100 percent.”
Still, there are times when it seems more of a thief, arriving well ahead of schedule with what appears to be random cruelty.
At this time of year, while the toughest thing for millions of us is figuring out what gift to get for friends or family members who already have everything they need, a close friend for decades is watching the gift of her own life fade while she struggles with cancer.
She has beaten the odds in one way – outlasting the prognosis for nearly an extra year – and while hope remains, another miracle looks unlikely. As Bob Dylan wrote about himself not long ago, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Perhaps in one way. But in another, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, who reportedly said the prospect of death “wonderfully concentrates the mind,” the dark often prompts us to generate light from sources we might never have thought were within us.
With darkness looming and grief a constant presence, the light of love from her husband, my good friend since childhood, is brighter than ever. He is her companion, caretaker and lover in a way that most of us never contemplate when we make the vows and the future seems limitless and bright. It is a light that will never banish death but will last much longer than both of their lives, passed along to their children, grandchildren and generations yet to be born – how to love in sickness as well as health.
They struggled at times over the years, like most of us do. But when he was sick some years ago, she was there with that same light, and all that other stuff became as trivial as it ought to be all of the time.
So, no matter how it ends – and it will end for all of us at some point – her path is bathed in light.
In another part of the country, a young couple who are close friends of my daughter-in-law are mourning the loss of a daughter who was a light in their lives for not quite five months.
She was, in the view of many, unlucky from the start. She had Down syndrome. She had a congenital heart problem. Her parents knew that she would probably be with them for only a short time, but her death, following what had seemed to be a successful heart surgery, was still a shocking, wrenching grief.
Yet, amid that sorrow, this is some of what her young father had to say to those who gathered for her memorial service:
“As Jesus reminds us, a light in a dark room ought not to be kept hidden. Its light is life-giving, and it must be shared. And so I would like to share with you about this little light named Julia …
“Julia was a gentle whisper of God – a soul closer to the veil between this life and the next than I have ever known – quiet, humble, and like other babies in many ways, yet from the beginning, somehow in a special way closer to the raw, unfathomable power of the creating God of the universe than you or I …
“Those that had the privilege of meeting Julia and holding her will know what I mean when I say that her eyes sparkled with eternal joy, that the deepness of her gaze held something wondrous and mysterious that transcended words or heart defects or genetic anomalies.
"Julia’s beautiful, wonderful, sparkly gaze touched me to the core of my soul, deep calling to deep, and convinced me more than anything before in this life that God loves me.”
Those are the words of one wracked by the pain of death but still at peace, banishing the dark with the light of love that passes understanding.
That is also what Christmas is all about.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org