Monday, December 22, 2008

against the darkness

the holiday season was always a special time for my grandparents, but not in the ways that have become so typical in our world.

sure, they followed the common formalities of christmas trees and ornaments and carols and cards and gifts and dinner and eggnog and fireplace stockings and crackling logs glowing long into the night--all the banal routines that often serve to make the season trite. and just like the usual fare, my grandparents did so as to excuse the right of everyone to be of good cheer, and to be gracious to one another, and to actually be kind and nice and gentle and decent human beings for at least one period every year.

they followed these traditions, knowing full well just how superficial they could be. in fact, they insisted on it, because they knew just how superficial they could be. performing them, my grandmother would say, was important, because it was what we did in upholding traditions that gave them meaning.

i asked her why we did this once. it was a late December evening and i was sitting by the fireplace. she was doing her customary holiday knitting and my grandfather was setting the record player for Bing Crosby's White Christmas.

she paused at my question, looked over her spectacles at me, and replied very quietly: "because we want you to have memories of these times."

and then she said enigmatically, "one day you will understand."

i didn't understand then, of course. i was too young. and stupid. and clueless. and ignorant of the world. and oblivious of any need to know any better.

all i did was follow my grandparents and went through the motions to uphold the traditions they associated with the holiday season.

including the one called Advent.

for those of you (of any faith) who don't know, Advent is the period of time preceding Christmas that marks the period of expectation for the birth of Christ. it's observed by some (although not all) Christian denominations, each of whom observe various intervals of time. for my grandparents, coming from Northern European (and hence Lutheran) stock, it was taken to cover the four weekends before Christmas, and essentially marked the duration of the entire holiday season. for the pious, Advent is taken as a way of preparing the self for God's arrival by gathering the soul and connecting it with the sacred, to remind ourselves of the reality of that which is greater than ourselves...and the promise of the truth that it was meant to be.

my grandparents, as it turned out, were pious. very much so. in keeping with the Advent tradition, they upheld the observance of vespers, which are the evening services meant for recollection, reflection, contemplation, meditation, and finally (and above all), prayer.

and so we'd bundle up, and drive to church, and stand in the chapel, and go through what always seemed at first to be just another service save for the fact that it was at night, replete with the liturgy known by rote sung with the same hymns given with the same sermons accompanied by the same prayers--going through formalities, the routines, that serve to make the season trite.

but then would come the moment when the liturgy would end. and the hymns would stop and the sermons would cease and the prayers would fade.

and then lights would be turned out. and then there would be darkness. and then there would be silence.

and then we'd be alone with our God.

and recollection, reflection, contemplation, meditation, and finally (and above all), prayer.

...

and somewhere, somehow, sometime, someway, a flame would rise.

and then from the flame a candle would be lit.

and then that candle would light another candle. and then that candle would light another. and then another. and another. until at last the fire from every candle arose, reflected off the faces of the people holding them, and the chapel would become aglow.

and in the chill of winter, in the blackness of the night, we'd stand together and know: this is what it means...this is what it means to bring light into the darkness. one candle at a time.

i asked my grandmother why we did this once. it was a late December evening, and the 3 of us were standing together, our candles joined close between our hands.

she paused at my question, looked over her spectacles at me, and replied very quietly: "because we want you to have memories of these times."

and then she said enigmatically, "one day you will understand."

she was right, of course.

i do know better now. i'm less ignorant, i have a clue, and am not so stupid, and no longer so young. i do understand. maybe not everything, but enough to know the meaning of the memories of the times with my grandparents; at least enough to know this:

you see, our world is not so pleasant. it's not always holiday time. there is no right to be of good cheer, nor to be gracious to one another, nor to be kind nor nice nor gentle nor decent human beings. and there are things that are not pious, nor sacred, nor even holy.

there are instead things that are very much profane. and some of them are very much sinister and brutal and malevolent and cruel. and they seek destruction at every turn, and strive to sound the knell of doom. for the sole purpose of bringing darkness to every corner of the earth, so that every soul may know despair.

but i know different.

because i know the reality of that which is greater than ourselves...and the promise of the truth that it was meant to be.

and now you do, too.

we are bringing light to the darkness.

one candle at a time.

o come o come emmanuel:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_mB-Ssbugg

2 comments:

Trihardist said...

Advent has become a very special time for me over the past few years. Not because I believe, but because I don't. And if Israel waited for 400 years in (apparent) silence, waiting for the messiah, then it gives me hope that I will once again find spiritual life. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Thank you for sharing, Jonathan.

Rick 'jyozen' Beal said...

Beautiful memories. Thanks for sharing.