by Susan Pigott
During the Advent season, one verse always catches my eye:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matt: 2:18, NRSV)
In the midst of the stories, we read during Advent is a massacre. Of children. This horrifying event, prompted by the magi’s visit and Herod’s discovery that a king had been born, results in the deaths of all children, ages two and under, in and around Bethlehem. To call this a dark story is an understatement.
The reality, however, is that many of the stories of Advent portray great darkness and fear. Think of Mary, all alone, being confronted by an angel declaring her mysteriously pregnant (Matt. 1:26-38), and Joseph sadly contemplating divorce when he found out about Mary’s pregnancy (Matt 1:19), and Zechariah being struck mute in the Holy of Holies for questioning an angel (Luke 1:20), and Mary giving birth to her first baby (without a midwife) in a stable stinking with manure (Luke 2:6-7), and the holy family forced to flee their homeland for Egypt because of Herod’s threat (Matt. 2:13), and the fear of the crowd when Zechariah suddenly regained his voice (Luke 1:65), and the terror of the shepherds in the sudden appearance of the angelic host (Luke 2:9), and Simeon’s stark prophecy declaring that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul (Luke 2:34). Think of how such events must have shaken the faith of these familiar characters we place in peaceful manger scenes!
These are stories of grief, scandal, threat, mystery, and exile—stories where darkness overshadows the lives of ordinary people. We often gloss over these stories in our rush to hear the good news, in our desire to be awash in light and angelic pronouncements. And we forget how often the angels had to declare, “Fear not!” because their presence produced such terror.
The seasons of Advent and Christmas can be seasons of darkness for many people. The persons we sit next to in church (or we ourselves) may be bearing unfathomable burdens—economic hardship, broken relationships, grief over the loss of family members and close friends, the loss of a job, lack of secure housing, a devasting diagnosis, chronic pain, depression, doubt and, perhaps, the loss of faith, and a haunting sense of anxiety. We are surrounded by Christmas lights that start glowing the day after Halloween, music that tells us it’s the most wonderful time of the year, and an incessant, throbbing marketplace clamoring for us to spend money because surely that will bring joy to the world.
Like Rachel, many of us are weeping, feeling completely alone in our darkness, wondering how we can face the cacophony of the days ahead, and quietly questioning whether or not God is real. We feel like we can’t get past the fear and hope seems unreachable. Our hearts break because the sounds of the seasons remind us of who and/or what we’ve lost.
Perhaps a way forward is not to deny the darkness but to embrace it—to bear with our pain rather than flee from it. Embracing darkness requires us to seek its beauty, to recognize that our eyes must adjust when light is absent. And who knows what wondrous things we might see in the mystery of the dark?