Hand-carved table-top nativity scenes, life-sized nativities, Christmas trees aglow, the wonder of children's faces: they are all images brought to mind during this holy season and I love them all. When I think about the image that stays with me, that links my childhood to adulthood and never fails to prompt contemplation, it is an unlikely scene that stands out from the rest.
Growing up in Louisiana, I saw extreme poverty in rural areas. On the farm next to ours, there lived an elderly man who was called, "Preacher." He worked on the farm and his small home was just beyond our fence. People passing by would probably refer to his home as a shack and as technical definitions go, they would not be incorrect. There was one main room which had at its center a free-standing wood stove. There was no air conditioning in the summertime and Preacher spent most of his spare time on his tiny front porch rather than indoors.
I knew these humble dwellings in the light of day. Old ringer washers and retired upholstered furniture might occupy space on their front porches. Children's bikes and toys often littered the yard beyond flower beds that neatly lined either side of wooden steps that led up to the front door. In the winter, the tell-tale smoke puffing from a stovepipe gave evidence of the stove that heated the home and probably provided a means of cooking. Different thoughts went through my mind. I was more thankful for my lovely, comfortable home. I felt a bit guilty because I had a lovely, comfortable home. I worried about fires for the families caused by rudimentary electrical wiring or the flames of the stove. I wondered how the children inside felt. I wondered if the children on their school bus also lived in similar housing or if they were in better circumstances. Did they face ridicule as the bus slowed to a stop in front of their homes? No matter how happy the reason for the drive, the sight of those homes along a rural Louisiana highway made for somber moments.
But then there were the night drives on those familiar highways. Now, those mere shacks shone with a cheery and welcoming light in their windows. Against the black night, with no city lights or even street lamps, the glow from those windows transformed those shacks into homes. And at Christmas time, how the transformation was complete! Outlined with simple large, multi-colored bulbs, those shacks, so sobering to passer-bys during the harsh sun-lit hours, became quaint little cottages. They resembled gingerbread houses and I can honestly say, I have yet to see the grandest decorated home that can rival those humble homes.
Even my imagination changed in the light of those night-time houses. Honestly, I moved from pity to sometimes wistfulness. I would think about how different things could look at night. In the dark, in the quiet, in the stillness. The tell-tale marks of poverty disappeared and light from within and without now defined those homes. I would think about the magic of Christmas. Even those in humble circumstances could participate in the celebration. I almost felt as if their simple decorations were much more satisfying than the magazine-spread decor that awaited us at home.
The dark. Where poverty remains to so many Americans. So many people live such sheltered lives that they can't imagine the poverty of places like the inner city or the rural south, places where either time marches across or time was left behind. Where Mary awaited the birth of her son in a humble stable, its blackness broken only by meager lamplight. Where hurts and pain lie in the recesses of our hearts and minds. Where the disciples slept whilst Jesus prayed with his whole being. Where Peter thrice forsake his Lord by the servant's fire. Where Jerusalem descended as Christ drew His last breath on the cross.
In the quiet. Where we contemplate, looking for hope or where we give in to worry. Where we find peace from a noisy world. Where things are more simple and truth stands out from the distractions.
In the stillness. Where we listen to the breaths of our sleeping children and gaze upon their resemblance to the angels. Where we can breathe. Where the quiet leads. Where we hear God speak to our hearts.
On our journey of faith, the Church gives us seasons of darkness, stillness, and quiet, so different from Ordinary time and the celebrations of Christmas and Easter. We wait in quiet and darkness through Advent for the birth of our Savior. In the history of God's chosen people who anticipated the Messiah. In the stable. In the night sky where there appeared a special star. We wait in quiet and the darkness throughout Lent for our Savior's crucifixion and resurrection. In the parable where we hope to count ourselves among the wise virgins with lamps lit. In the garden with the disciples. In the courtyard with Peter. In the tomb.
But like Christ Himself, the Church never leaves us in the darkness. This Christmas, as those before, the Church walks into the dark of midnight and joyfully shines her light of faith into the world, proclaiming that Christ is born! No matter how broken, unsightly, or poor--in body, in spirit, in mind, in circumstances--we are welcomed to take our place amongst the festivities. When we enter into the quiet and stillness, grace transforms us and the light of faith illumines our ordinary outlooks and concerns. Then, piling mystery upon mystery, we can be humble lights to each other as we journey in faith.
Dear Lord, thank you for breaking the darkness of Advent with your light. Thank you for grace and the gift of faith to light my path amongst the ordinary and the extraordinary. Thank you for those many people you've used in my life to light the way closer to you. Amen.