In those long ago days of Christmas innocence when it always snowed gently in a starry and windless night, my parents would hustle my sisters and me into the back seat of the car. We would drive slowly, snow crunching under cold tires, into the neighborhoods of the rich to see the "lights."
The "lights" were decorations that people put up on the outside of their houses and lawns. Multicolored lights would be strung over an entire house, etching door frames and windows, wrapped round into wreaths and bows. In the frozen front yard, there were figures of cardboard and plastic, even stone, ranging in size from a small child to an overgrown adult. They were the usual suspects, a mix of "The Night Before Christmas" and the crib, reindeer and wise men, sleighs and shepherds, elves and Mary, angels and carolers, Santa Claus and Baby Jesus. Occasionally, the stiff, on-guard soldiers from "The Nutcracker" would make an appearance. All were lit up so that night passengers in slow-moving cars could gawk through frosted windows and say, "Look at that one!"
But it was not these sprawling scenes that first welcomed me into the truth of Christmas.
One Christmas when we returned from our trip to see the "lights," I pushed out of the backseat, straightened up, and saw our house. We lived in a two-flat. My grandparents lived on the first floor, and since they usually went to bed around 9 (a practice I have recently begun to understand), their flat was dark. Our flat on the second floor was also dark -- except for the Christmas tree.
The tree was strung with lights, and their soft glow could be seen through the upper window. The outer darkness was all around, yet the tree shone in the darkness. There was no razzle-dazzle, no blinking on and off, no glitz, no "Oh, wow!" There was just a steady shining, a simple juxtaposition of light and darkness. Its beauty drew me.
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I ran up the stairs. My parents had already unlocked the door and turned on the house lights. I sat in a chair and stayed with the tree. The attraction of the tree continued for a while and then began to recede. Soon the practical took over. I noticed some tinsel that needed to be smoothed and rehung. As I tinkered with it, whatever was left of the tree's radiance dimmed. Then, abruptly, the revelation ceased. It became merely a pine tree shedding needles on the rug.
It was only when I was older that I reflected on what my child's heart had intuited. Christmas celebrates an inner light, a tree of lights inside the house of our being, and invites us to come close and ponder its beauty. We notice this light because it is contrasted with an outer darkness. Although the outer darkness does not go away, the inner light defies this darkness, refusing to allow it to dictate the terms of existence. "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 1:4-5).
The Christmas revelation can be phrased: No matter how severe the darkness of the outer world is, it cannot overcome the inner and transcendent light. Give the darkness its due but not your soul. Although we do not always reflect on it, there is an edge to Christmas, an in-your-face attitude. G.K. Chesterton put it simply and well: "A religion that defies the world should have a feast that defies the weather." So I wish everyone a defiant Christmas.
Of course, I really want everyone to have what the Christmas cards say -- unvarnished peace, love and joy. But that is not what we always get. Christmas arrives to find our health precarious; our careers, jobs or vocations under stress; our finances dipping badly; our relationships in need of repair; our society and world either slightly or wildly insane, threatening us in ways we never imagined.
We need to push back. When the outer world is darkness, we need to find and rest in the inner world of light and bring that light into the intimidating darkness. Since this inner world is rooted in a transcendent love, it is more powerful than all the attacks that emerge from both our finitude and sin. When we bring it forth, we walk the path of gentle defiance. We are neither negative nor angry. We have just managed to find a greater love by which to be held and energized. This capacity for defiance may be the Christmas gift that we will all need to unwrap during one December or another.
[John Shea is a senior fellow of the Ministry Leadership Center, which provides formation for senior executives in Catholic health care and affiliated organizations. His book on Christmas is Starlight.]