All The Light You Need
I remember a bright string of tail-lights stretching out in front of us on the freeway as we drove home after dark. We had spent a long summer day in my grandparent’s pool with an army of cousins — a collective parenting strategy of peace by exhaustion that I can now appreciate as a middle-aged uncle. On the ride home I sat in the back seat of our VW bus, my vision blurred from an overdose of chlorinated pool water, California sun, and good ol’ fashioned fatigue.
A trail of red and white lights traced the way home through the dark hills of Brea Canyon. It seemed to me like a peppermint stick or candy cane that someone forgot to twist. I remember it now as a moment of authentic wonder — a summer memory, with a Christmas flavor.
Are we there yet? No. It’s barely Thanksgiving. But even now, at the edge of Advent [Catholic faux paux alert], I’m thinking of Christmas — just as I was in that string of summer traffic in the back of that VW bus. And now, as then, I’m tired, I’m far from home, and my vision is blurred. Red-cups and culture wars, racism and refugees, terrorism and endless war. The child in me wants for Christmas. The adult wonders who will make it happen.
At no other time do we feel simultaneously so old and so much a child than at the holidays. Our waiting and our wanting overwhelm us. The not-yet-happened and the happened-long-ago erupt in our hearts at the scent of candles and cookies. But also in the sadness we feel as we read the morning news, the pinch of realizing that the world is not at peace, the kingdom not yet come, the child still in exile, the wise ones still en route. We feel more the distance and the darkness, the longing and the loneliness, a child’s hope in a weary world: We’re not there yet.
I was sitting alone at the top of the stairs in the dark early morning and looking down into a living room flooded with the soft light of our Christmas tree. Someone had left the lights on overnight, a fire-hazard to be sure, but my favorite childhood hazard by far. Those little lights on the huge tree in our living room made the most ordinary space special.
And it was huge. My father insisted that our tree reach the very top of our 12-foot-tall vaulted ceiling; and, trees being as they are, height comes with girth so, you can imagine. We did our Christmas tree shopping in places normally reserved for banks or, I don’t know, Rockefeller Center. The installation process involved bicycle hooks and hanging wire, lots of sap and an occasional chip of paint or drop of blood. Every year we marked the season with this outrageous gesture and made sacred the place in which we lived our normal lives day in and day out.
I remember most the lights. There is something about the gathering of small lights — harvest lanterns, prayer lamps, vigil candles, stars — something about the little things and the soft that remind us of the strength of tenderness and the delicate enchantment of real beauty. I sat there for some time. I have no idea why I was awake. But there I was, before the same old living room, totally alone and silent, feeling very present and far far away all at once.
There’s always tension this time of year and if we take Advent seriously, maybe it’s seasonally appropriate. But we ought to avoid confusing cultural tension (the war on ‘x’) for liturgical tension (the mystery of ‘here, but not yet’). For if there is to be a holy tension it’s never meant to divide us, to exclude us, or to break us. It’s meant to hold us. That’s important. A divine tension is always meant to hold us — like a lover’s arms, like a mother’s embrace, like a hammock in the shade on a warm sandy beach. Divine tension, a deeply restorative tension, is always healing.
It’s important to remember that Advent is only possible because Christmas has already happened. I’m reminded of what philosopher Hannah Arendt calls our natality — the fact of our birth, our capacity for spontaneity, our human state of here-but-not-yet potential. In our natality the ordinary and the divine find a redemptive unity. The unthinkable is made possible. The forgotten become the most important. The vulnerable possess a real power. We’re not there yet. But we’re held in hope and our faith is one of witness. The nativity is already a reality.
Every year we took the lights and ornaments down and put them back in their boxes after first wrapping them in excessive amounts of toilet paper (archaeologists of the future will delight in my mother’s rubber tubs full of mummified Santas). It would all go into hiding again, waiting to be unwrapped in a year’s time. And this was for me the real gift of Christmas. The same old toys wrapped and unwrapped every year with what felt like an ever-new joy — both a sweet memory and a sacred hope.
Theologically we call this an eschatological moment, a moment where we experience the end of things and their fullness, a moment where we are reminded that eternity is not as distant as it is ever-present. It’s tricky, but Advent plays the game well. We’re not there yet. But here? Absolutely.
In many places Advent is marked by lighting four candles, one at a time, over the course of four weeks – a gentle reminder of the magic, the mystery of what it means to say that God is present in our longing, born in our vulnerability, revealed in our fragile humanity. So, make your lists, check them twice, light your candles, start your countdown-calendar, for the child is here, if even not yet. And if, for whatever reason, you find yourself exhausted, far from home, sitting in traffic with watery eyes, look to the horizon and know that even here, even now, even in this sad little moment, you can find all the light you need.
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, the blog-writers for TheJesuitPost.org will publish a series of stories around this theme: Here. But not yet. It will be our way of marking this time, of remembering this creative tension in serial, in stories linked by nothing other than our wanting to write them. And along the way, maybe we’ll find something of the Christmas we seek.