As I tucked in my children tonight, I read to them from the book of Matthew, reminding us all of the birth story that begat today's celebrations. Though it is the story of the joyous birth of our Christ, it holds in it some rather dark elements. King Herod sends his wisest men to locate this newborn baby, whom he perceives to be a threat to his authority; Herod intends to kill Jesus, but the wise men -- wise to his plan -- do not assist him and, likely putting their own lives in jeopardy, never report back. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt, returning to Israel only after Herod's death, remaining in fear of the son who ruled after him. In some ways, the New Testament could read like a mystery novel, one in which forces against Jesus try and try again to bring him down. (Of course, they eventually succeed -- but we do not need to go there, as Easter is months away.)
What parallels this story has to life right now, whether my own personal story or that of the goings-on in the world. When I read this piece by Max Lucado -- one of my favorite kids' authors for his fables with a strong moral message -- my heart grew at once heavy and hopeful. Lucado writes, "Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won't you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us."
In a world where violence is ever present, where children are being taken in what ought to be sacred and safe space, how profound is that message: we are looking for a star. We seek a light. We search for a way out of the darkness in which we could drown if we closed our eyes and let it consume us. We hope for a better world.
I found the light this holiday season -- or, rather, it found me. It came to the sound of a gentle knock as a friend placed poinsettias, a wreath, and doormat on my stoop -- alongside a delicious dinner. It continued with another friend with whom I shared one of the best child-free meals out and deepest conversations I have had in a long time. It kept going as holiday card after holiday card arrived addressed to me in my own "original" name, some with the kindest letters and notes of support I could have ever imagined. It grew with the arrival of my "big sister" from Sweden, a former exchange student whom I adore who traversed halfway across the globe to be with us for just a couple of days. It blossomed in the Christmas pageant, where my heart beamed as my angel Gabriel (Petunia) and my little shepard (Dash) delivered their lines with such joy. And it kept on rolling right through this Christmas day, when my greatest gift came in the form of a visit from a dear college friend and his lovely family; nothing can make a home glow quite like a two year-old and a six year-old, alongside my own twelve and seven year-olds, with an unlimited cookie supply!
Plus, of course, there were the lights -- literally. I stepped out of my front door one afternoon to find myself surrounded by them, from my handrails to my doorway to the gables of my roof. A friend had sent a light-hanger to be-Christmas my house. I think the only tears I shed this season were while watching my kids' eyes as they saw them light up for the first time. Awestruck does not even cover it! It was as if I got to watch them getting infused with the Christmas spirit -- a special and magical event that I could never replicate if I tried.
Most importantly -- most impressively, perhaps -- aside from those few tears of joy, I spent this holiday season waiting for tears that never came, waiting for ache that I never felt, waiting for the hurt that I anticipated -- waiting, in a sense, to suffer. What a shame that I wasted that time during a season of such joy. What a shame, really, that I thought I should suffer at all. It is as if I lost my own light. It is my great fortune that others see it and shine it back at me when I am in my times of greatest need for that reminder.
It has been a dark year, likely my own darkest ever. And yet, I sit here by a glowing fire, warmed even more by the love of family and friends, knowing that I have chosen to emerge from the darkness unbroken and whole into a world that I will continue to refuse to see as dark, and, poignantly, one in which I refuse to accept suffering as the norm. The Zen proverb says "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." I choose to be strong. I choose to remember my inner light that comes from being secure with who I am and with what I need, and especially with how I act and interact in the world.
Max Lucado is right, Jesus was born in darkness -- and yet, a Star lit the path of all who sought Him. My Christmas prayer this year, for myself and for all who have struggled of late to make sense of the world, is that when we are lost, we find the light -- whether it is the Light of God or the light within ourselves that reminds us of why we are here: to love each other and to be of good use to one another. And I give extra thanks this year for the friends who shone that light on me when I refused to find it myself. A new year lies ahead, and I am excited to begin anew.