I learned something interesting the other day. I was listening to Dr. Alexander John Shaia talk to Rob Bell on the RobCast and Dr. Shaia said something that I haven’t been able to shake this past week. He was talking about the early roots of Christianity and how when it spread out of the Palestine area and into other regions, it began to take on the flavors of other cultures.
One of the people groups he talked about the most was the Celtics and how the dark winter months of November and December represented (for them) the beginnings or birth pangs of something new.
Like, have you noticed the great amount of darkness that’s present right now, this time of the year? Sometimes I go to work in the DARK and then when I leave it’s DARK again and since I work in a mall there are days when I literally don’t see an ounce of daylight.
... All the time.
And I usually complain about it, to be honest, because I find it kind of depressing and annoying.
Not to mention overwhelming because it makes it harder to “get things done”. Right? Am I the only one who feels like less daylight makes it feel like I have less time to accomplish my ...
Super important goals?
Work on my super important dreams?
Pursue those super important agendas?
... We’ve all been there, right? And every time I get there and feel that stress, it fills me with a crazy amount of anxiety.
Interestingly, though, the Celtics called this time of the year “the time of holy darkness” because they didn’t see it as a time to be avoided or pushed away or “fixed” or quickened or pushed through, but a time to be embraced. For them this time of the year was a time when they could rest, reset themselves, and push pause on life, busyness, etc.
Dr. Shaia says that when the Christians brought the Gospel into the Celtic region they were looking for ways that the Celtic culture could create space for them to integrate the Christian faith and thus be an avenue for spreading the message of Jesus to the Celtic people. And so as they became more familiar with who the Celts were and more aware of their culture, what they believed, etc. and learned about their embrace of the November / December darkness, the Christians began to call this dark time the season of “Advent”.
“Advent”, remember, means “beginning time” and so the season of Advent came to represent a time of the year for God’s people to be revitalized and renewed as they remembered the birth of Jesus and all of the newness, freshness, and revitalization that He brought with Him.
And so that was the advent (or the beginning) of the Advent season.
What this means for us, I think, is that there’s a different way to look at some of the things that we typically do during this time of the year.
Candles, for instance.
I adore Christmas lights - the more, the better. White lights. Colored lights. Big lights. Small lights. Twinkling lights. Whatever - more, more, more! And when I was little I used to love when my mom would put those little electric candle sticks in the front windows of our home, and when she would hang a wreath on the front door and position a spotlight in the front lawn so that it hit the door perfectly and brought the wreath and the front door into the light.
Lights, lights, and more lights.
But I always saw the lights as a way to counter the darkness, right? Like when we light the Christmas tree and the candles and the wreath, it extinguishes the darkness just as Jesus extinguished the darkness when He came into the world. Satan’s kingdom became weaker. Evil got pushed down. And Light and goodness got a little stronger.
If we’re looking at lights and candles and stuff through the lens of the Celts, it actually means something entirely different and (I think) much more meaningful.
The idea of extinguishing the darkness in favor of the light is an idea that didn’t really arrive on the scene until Christianity made its way into the Greek world. Greeks were known for very “dualistic” thinking - light vs. darkness, good vs. evil, heaven vs. hell, angels vs. demons, etc. For the Greeks, darkness was one thing and light was another - darkness was bad, light was good. It was one OR the other.
For the Celtic people, though, they weren’t so much an “either / or” group of people, but a “both / and”. In other words, they weren’t interested in dividing things into 2 groups, but about integrating into 1. They weren’t about division, but unification. For them darkness and light were one in the same in that both were good, something to be celebrated, and all the more beautiful when partnered together as one. And so for them trees weren’t decorated and candles weren’t lit so much to extinguish the darkness, but to decorate the darkness.
“Decorate the darkness” - sit on that phrase for a moment.
In other words, because the darkness of November and December was seen as a GOOD thing and something to be EMBRACED, the Celts decorated their trees and lit candles not to push the darkness away, but to make it more beautiful and more meaningful and more luminous. For them, the darkness wasn’t simply the end of something old, but the beginning of something new. Just as a baby is born out of the darkness of the womb so dreams, new life, new adventures, new ideas ... are born out of the darkness of late November and December, the season of Advent.
So, my friends. A couple of things.
One, could it be that the darkness in your life (as horrible and painful and heavy as it may be) might be a ... good thing?
Could it be.
That although the darkness feels like the end of a season of life that you loved and adored, could it be that the darkness is actually a deeper symbol that something new and different is coming? It’s not that the loss needs to be pushed away or brushed away or that we should pretend everything is OK and put on a fake smile. What we’re saying, though, is maybe the sadness or loss doesn’t last forever, but is merely a sign that something new and different is coming?
And could it be that as you sit in the dark womb of November and December that maybe God will meet you in the midst of that darkness with His beautiful light not so much to make the darkness go away and save the day, but to show you that even in the midst of your darkest hour - He is there, decorating your darkness with His light, intertwining the 2 into 1 so that meaning can come forth from something that you thought contained nothing but evil and sadness?
That even in the midst of your deepest dark, there is light all around you?
And two, could it be that you might be the light that God has chosen to decorate someone else’s darkness?
After all, it’s not all about you, you know?
Perhaps God has made you aware of someone else’s darkness ...
Someone else’s lack.
Someone else’s loneliness.
Someone else’s sadness.
Someone else’s loss.
... So that you can walk into their lives during this Advent season and decorate their darkness with whatever it is that they need, something that will lift their spirits and give them a sense of the joy they have forgotten how to have ... to decorate their darkness with a sweet reminder that this darkness doesn’t simply mark for them the end of something, but the beginning of something new.
Maybe you and your family can be the fresh breath of new joy that they so desperately need today.
And so my challenge for us these next few days is to (1) dwell on whatever it is that God might be birthing in our own lives as we enter into the other side of Advent and (2) be on the lookout for the darkness that others are carrying around with them so that we can partner or conspire with God not to extinguish their darkness and make it go away, but to decorate their darkness with light and bring attention to the beautiful meaning of it.
Much love and a very Merry Christmas.