It was dark.

(Originally posted on TheVeryHungry.tumblr.com)

Before it got too dark out today, I took Zoey for a walk around Bolton Hill, one of my favorite Baltimore neighborhoods. Full of old brownstones and brick sidewalks, the special feel of Bolton Hill is worth the extra agility required to maneuver a stroller up and down its streets. The warmth of early spring and late fall allow for open window concerts, as Peabody students and professors practice their pianos, violins, flutes, and arias every afternoon.

In the winter, I add at least an extra twenty minutes to these walks. I like to stop and study (read: covet) the handmade garlands and wreaths that drape over the heavy wooden doors and the left over greenery that crawls up lamp posts that I’m willing to bet are untucked from attics just for this season… And today, after commenting to Marc that the “holly is in bloom” I made a point of counting every holly bush I passed. My final count was 14 and I was eagerly betting on more!

I’m pretty sure I could do without the colorful lights, glittery paper, and ever-multiplying family of nutcrackers we’ve inherited. (Seriously, they’re mating in the storage unit.) And I could absolutely go about my life without ever again seeing another gigantic inflatable snow globe or a pair of those poor animatronic deer in Christmas lights! But holly is a different story. Holly is understated. Holly is humble. Holly is true to the season.

Holly is also, what I would consider, the perfect symbol of Advent; the bursting, bright red berries, peeking through the tough, dense leaves. Light within the dark.

Dark. This is what it was like before Jesus’ birth. And I have news for you and me and everyone else: it was pretty dark afterwards too. Nations didn’t wake up the day after he was born and begin packing away their swords. Given this dark start to the first Christmas, it’s funny to think that now this is a season we’re ordered to “get in the spirit” for the minute we hear the first play of Celine Dion’s “O Holy Night.” We are supposed to be joyous and happy and merry and gay! Come December 26, we go back to whatever we were before but for now, for these 25 days or so, let’s pretend that all is calm and all is bright!

But, no. That’s not how it was. Before Jesus’ birth there was a sociopath on the throne, terrorizing his people, driving his kingdom to its doom. And it didn’t get much better after Jesus’ birth. The slaughter of infants ring a bell? It was dark, friends.

Today Shannon (Ashland’s pastor) and I visited the preschool classes to share a story called “Listen to the Silent Night.”  I found this story last year while looking for something to use with our younger kids on Christmas Eve. I sat in Greetings & Readings for at least two hours, poring over children’s books. Unlike many of the stories I read through, “Listen to the Silent Night” artfully pokes fun at this fabricated peacefulness that’s been super-imposed on all the hubbub surrounding Jesus’ birth. We hear the shuffle of a busy town, thewoosh of the wind, the clamor of the livestock, the moan of Mary, and the cry of Jesus.

I was lucky enough to have a good friend serendipitously accompany me on my first flight with Zo. Tracy had me rolling in the aisle as she described her disgust over the “Away In A Manger” lyrics, “the cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes…” Oh you must be joking! If this isn’t a shout out to noisy kids in church then I don’t know what is!

Any way, during the story the kids helped with the sound effects as we came to each scene, becoming noticeably excited the more noise they were asked to make. (One girl was so riled up her teacher removed her from the group! I couldn’t believe it! Punished for having fun! The child protested by standing, not sitting, at the table of her exile, arguing that she had not been given an explanation of her crime. She had not been read her rights.) It reminded me that with noise there is energy and often, anxiety. And as we well know, anxiety brilliantly disguises itself so often as anger, self doubt, rage, indifference, etc… Just pick up the DSM and you’ll have your list!

So it was dark. Anxiety was high. Anger and rage and indifference and doubt were happening in individual, interpersonal, and national realms, causing broken relationships, suffering, war.

And still, God came to be with us.

As Anne Lamott’s friend Tom shares in a story she originally posted ten years ago, “… I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.”

As much as I’d prefer it (especially when reading to preschoolers!!) God doesn’t set up tent once everyone is sitting quietly and politely. He doesn’t wait until we’ve gotten through our graduate programs or received that raise! She doesn’t come when the cancer has been in remission long enough or when the divorce is finalized or the marriage is back on the right path. God doesn’t start stirring in us when we accept the job or hit our target weight or get our grades up or when it gets nice enough to not have to wear a coat outside.

It helps me to remember that God was in the den with Daniel, not at the congratulatory “YAY YOU SURVIVED THE LIONS!!!” party afterward. And I joke but really, do we get how terrifying that story is?? Do we get how terrifying the time of Jesus’ birth was? It was probably some of the darkest of times.

And so, as we continue to smile and sing and bake and wrap our way through this season may we remember that God is not the God of Getting Through It.He is Emmanuel, God with us

And that means now, ready or not.

And that means you and me and the people who are alone and the people we wish would leave us alone (which just might be ourselves!)

And thank God for that.

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