Early evening these days is nearly totally dark at our kitchen table, even with two purple candles and a pink one lit in our Advent wreath. It seems darker than usual this year. The familiar fuzzy comfort of the season is absent…I feel fierce, raw, angry and afraid. I think of my sister, whose pale Alaskan sun sets early in the afternoon this time of year; after a weak attempt at climbing partway up the sky, it gives up and drops quickly back below the horizon again.
I think I know how that sun feels.
We have been working at Advent, at cultivating the calm contemplation that might be slightly out of reach for a family with children as young as ours. Every day, I’ve been listening to my playlist, reading books with my children, baking and crafting and knitting and praying to get ready. Every night, I’ve been faithfully lighting our candles. I’ve been doing a lot of explaining, helping my son to understand what Advent is all about, teaching him songs and prayers and recipes, watching him as he bites his lip in concentration during a reading, as he smiles and signs himself with a cross, as he bounces in his seat and sings, “Gaude!”.
Gaude. Rejoice. It’s what we’re supposed to be about, our task in even these darkest weeks of the year.
Since the shooting at Sandy Hook school last week, I’ve felt at a loss for words. Usually, I write about faith, about God, about how to be domestic church in an ecumenical family, about how to survive long days with little people when things feel tough. I post recipes for play dough and talk about what books we are reading. I share cooking projects and post pictures of kids painting and smiling. These are the things that make up my life. This is what I am doing, who I am being.
All of it seems so very small now.
Just over a week before Christmas, a gunman in a school in a state I’ve only driven through has thrown everything into a tailspin. Anxiety has been my constant companion, a sort of unnameable, unearned ache that makes me feel a little frantic. My lists are spiraling out of control. How many loads of laundry need to be done before we leave this weekend for family Christmas? Do we have enough toothpaste for the trip? Should I have bought more curling ribbon? Does any of this even matter?
If I’m honest, I confess that my busy-ness and listmaking are ways of dealing with the anxiety and sadness I feel…that occupying myself with batch after batch of cookies keeps me from thinking about the children who are gone, from wondering about the motives of the shooter, from scrolling through facebook to see my friends and their friends engaging in heated debate about gun control and mental health care. I’m too busy on purpose with all I have to do, even though none of it seems as important as it felt before.
I’ve been trying to write this post all week, too, without success. My best effort feels weak, like that Alaskan sun…a halfhearted attempt at helping, a band-aid offered to someone who has lost a limb. The scope of this tragedy, the enormous weight carried by the families who have lost a child, dwarfs my capacity to say anything helpful. My words are raindrops in a hurricane. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said…and the storm of words is so deafening, there’s almost no point in speaking, anyway.
It’s still Advent, though. This helplessness, this sadness, this brokenness is exactly why I need to keep on keeping watch. I need to wait for God…maybe more this year than ever.
God always shows up. God is still God- unchanging, everlasting God…as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. We confess it every week in worship- we proclaim God’s God-ness every time we say the creeds that define our faith. We cannot proclaim the limitlessness and omnipotence of God in one breath and then say that God has abandoned us in the next breath.
This tragedy did not happen because God is on some big power trip about how we don’t allow God in schools. God is God, and God is everywhere. We may invite God into this place or legislate God out of another place, but God does not need our permission to exist or to be present and is there whether we confess belief in God’s existence or not. God is at school and in jail and in Wal-mart and wherever else we can imagine and in all the places we can’t imagine. It is not up to us.
(How fortunate for us that this is not a decision we are responsible for making.)
God is always in the picture, whether or not we see God. God is there, and God is always for us. We don’t always feel it, but it’s still true.
What’s more, the God I know isn’t too busy judging our cultural shift away from organized religion to cry with us. The God I know isn’t standing over to the side somewhere with arms crossed, saying “I told you so.”
The God I know is standing right with us, right behind us, sharing our pain and our fear. The God I know has God-sized hands big enough to hold all the worry and suffering and torment and anguish. The God I know has arms long enough to wrap us up and hold us close…and that God wants so badly to be with us that God Incarnate came to earth to do just that. To be with us.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
If being with us is that important, maybe we ought to pay more attention to being with each other. If God was willing to come down to earth to keep our company, then keeping company with each other is no small thing. Standing in solidarity with the families in Connecticut, even from thousands of miles away, means something. It is a confession of hope. Maybe it is as dark as we have ever seen it right now, but we will keep watch with you until the light shows up.
So we wait. We watch. We hold our families close. The people around my table, the ones whose eyes are bright in the candlelight as we eat dinner together – they are what matters most right now. And my time with them is what I have. Maybe my territory is small stuff compared to the scope of the suffering out there. But to my children, the smallness in front of us is the universe. This is their world – it’s what’s before them, it’s what they know. And my job as their mother is to help make that world the kind of place that prepares them to go out into the darkness and be lights and shine in the way that only they can.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” And they will be. Tending little lights may feel small to me now. But only the presence of little lights- hundreds, thousands, millions of them – can push back the darkness.
It is surely dark right now. Darker than ever. Still, there’s a light. It’s growing. It’s in us, it’s in our children…and when we forget about our light or we’re too weak to shine, we can hold it out for each other. God’s still God. Jesus is still going to be born. We just have to keep watch, to sit together as we wait for the light to show up.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.