I have a reputation for pulling all-nighters. As a college student, I worked best at the deadline, and I still respond well to the adrenaline of expectations. I even stayed up all night having my first child. Some of us like to create our own excitement.
I’ve stayed up all night on Christmas Eve, or most of the night. One night, long ago, I cross-stitched frantically into the wee hours, while an old Christmas movie played out on an appropriately snowy, pre-cable TV screen. I finished my grandmother’s gift, a rendering of her house, with just enough time to let the brown paper dry on the back of the frame before she arrived on Christmas afternoon.
Sometimes staying up even until a normal hour in December night feels like staying up all night, because the days themselves are so short. Despite that, we fill December with parties and events and special services, creating a non-stop season of celebration and togetherness. We’re looking for fellowship, for connection, for reasons to brighten ourselves the way we brighten our houses with lights and a tree.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is a time of encroaching darkness. The season of shorter days and longer nights allows us to identify with the people of long ago, those people who knew the rhythms of the year but couldn’t explain them scientifically. They had to wonder when the sun would return. They waited, just as we wait for the Son of God. Living with the unknown is like driving after a storm when the street lights have lost their power; just as we wait and hope for the electricity to return, people of long ago hoped for the light of God to shine again in their lives. The refrain is repeated throughout Psalm 80:
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
In the Psalm the people cry out to God, complaining that their prayers have gone unheeded. They feel abandoned by God. The psalmist names some of the sons of Jacob, the tribes of Israel. They understood themselves to be chosen as God’s particular people. Why would God abandon them in the desert? In the extreme darkness of a desert wilderness, they could imagine only one source of light: God’s face.
Yet God will come in the darkness, not in our efforts to create an artificial light that keeps us up all night. Salvation enters our lives in the dark of a stable, in the arms of a young mother, in the silence of night. We wait in the darkness of December for Christmas to come again, for Christ to enter our hearts, for a reminder of what the incarnation is all about. "The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven," we read in Mark. Then the one great light will come.
This is not just a prophecy describing some apocalyptic future. It is the ongoing story of our Christian lives, and it is reflected in the rhythms of the seasons. Year after year, we remember the coming of the Child in the night. Darkness comes, and we wait for the return of the light. It is a significant component of the human experience. How much deeper did that darkness seem before electric lights? We know that most of our winter holidays, in all faiths, have their origin in the need to believe in the potential return of the light, and to celebrate its coming again. We bring evergreens inside our homes and churches as the northern European people did centuries ago, to reassure themselves that the cycles of cold and warmth, of darkness and light, would continue, that the sun would not desert us, would not wink out in the sky.
People of faith everywhere, whatever their language for God, seek that light, that saving light. From Mumbai this week came the stories of Americans killed, Americans who went to India for reasons of faith.
- A father and daughter sought sources of enlightenment, following their teacher to a faraway place for inspiration, and although there spiritual practice may differ from ours, we share their sense of searching for God in and beyond the ordinary. At home a wife and mother grieves for them, plunged into the darkness of their absence.
- A husband and wife undertook a call to live their lives as an example to other Jews, practicing their faith in a foreign land. They ran the Chabad Lubavitch, devoting themselves to a ministry of worship and hospitality, welcoming Jews from all over the world to services and Shabbat dinners. A cook at Chabad house rescued their toddler son from an indescribably terrible scene; she simply picked him up and ran.
If I speak just of Americans killed in Mumbai, it is not because I care only for them, but because I cannot take in the completeness or the complexity of the horrors that occurred. I can only imagine the fear experienced in Mumbai this past week, by people held hostage, people in explosions, people murdered for reasons we cannot understand. I can only imagine the anguish and horror of parents seeing their children’s lives threatened.
No, actually, I cannot imagine them. These evil situations go beyond my power of imagination. They signify a darkness of heart and soul deeper than I can comprehend.
As images of the Taj Hotel played over and over again on the television, I remembered walking through the halls there as a teenager, when I visited India with my family. I remembered the architecturally distinctive windows, and the beautiful food in the restaurants, the terrace pool beside the American “Grill” on an upper floor, and I remember the abject poverty outside. They flash by in my mind like scenes from a dream, images of a hotel now the scene of nightmares, of people holed up in closets, barricaded in their rooms, unable to sleep as night became day and then night again, waiting and hoping to be saved. I can only pray that the people in them saw the light of God’s face, a sign that even in a time of human terror, even in a time of never-ending night, we are never alone.
Because that’s the real desert, the place where we convince ourselves we *are* alone.
A sheep alone, separated from the flock, faced a cold and lonely end. The psalmist imagined God as a Shepherd whose shining face meant safety to the flock:
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:17-19, NRSV)
Eyes closed, shivering, the lonely sheep cannot see any light. Suppose you’re in the desert, eyes clamped shut, terrified of being alone. Could you see the light break through? Could you see the face of God?
This Jesus we await, no sentimental baby he, speaks roughly to us in the passage from Mark:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:32-33, NRSV)
We don’t know, and he didn’t know either, not the Jesus we will come to know through Mark’s writing. He is a distinctly human Jesus, warning us of life’s unpredictability, asking us to keep our hearts ready for whatever may come. He is living that way himself, a way that will be marked with disappointment in our human failings and a wonder at the end about where God is in his own life and death.
But we know from his story that God *will* come in the darkness. The crucified Jesus will rise. God will break through into the broken world, again and again, in the baby we await, and in sharp moments of need, and at the times when we least expect it. And so we wait together, through the season of short days. We do not know the hour, and so, if we must, we stay up all night. Amen.