Tonight, December 21st, is the longest night of the year. After tonight, the winter solstice, the days will get longer—sunsets delayed just a few minutes every day as light lingers. One of the reasons Christmas is celebrated during this time of year is that very return of light and the hope and promise that the darkness will not be forever. In Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, the celebration of Luciadagen, the Feast of St. Lucia, also celebrated the return of longer days and more light.
Even when we still face at least two more months of cold and possibly dreary weather, these celebrations of light and joy are ways of laughing in the face of dark and cold. The longer nights and gray clouds seem to provide the perfect background for twinkling lights and tinsel. Even John’s story of the incarnation, read on Christmas day, tells us that God is light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)
But with all of its celebration and joy, Christmas can be particularly difficult for those who are not in a place of light and hope. For many, Christmas is a harsh reminder of a life or a promise that once was. While others gather and clamor to sing “Joy to the World,” many cannot feel that joy in their own lives and instead feel only loss and grief in its place.
A tradition has begun recently of holding a “Longest Night” service, to allow a space to recognize Christmas, to hear the story of the Word made flesh—but to also leave room for feelings of pain and sadness.
On this, the longest night of the year, we remember just how dark the world can be. There are empty spaces at dinner tables, stockings that are not hung, perhaps even gifts purchased already, with no one to receive them. Yet it was into the darkness that Christ was born. In the middle of a world full of death and sorrow, a child came that we too might have life. That we too might experience the light.
He worked and taught amidst sorrow and sadness. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, wept for his friends. God become human means that God, in a very deep and personal way, understands our emotions, and needs, and sorrows. He came into the darkness so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
So if, in this Christmas season, you do not feel joy, or if you do not feel like smiling, or if even saying “Merry Christmas” hurts because you feel anything but merry—know that the light of Christ came not to an already lit world, but to the darkness of night. If you are in that darkness, or if friends or family are, know that it is ok to be sad at Christmas. The true reason we gather at Christmas is not simply to be joyful and merry, but to celebrate Immanuel, God with us in every part of our lives. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not—and will not—overcome it.