Today is the shortest day of the year. The longest night. After this, the mornings brighten earlier; dusks descend a little later. The angles of shadows shift, bit by bit, until a few weeks from now we will wake and realize that somehow our days are more characterized by light than by darkness.
It’s that time in the Advent story too: the place where things look their very bleakest
This is the time of year when my mind always turns to Mary. A Jewish teenager, unmarried and hugely pregnant, in a time and place where that combination was legal grounds for being stoned to death.
When we lived in Russia, we often had to leave the country to get our visas renewed. One year, we had to be out a few days before Christmas. We were bound for Austria that time, but between us and our destination lay the mafia-controlled breadth of Ukraine. We loaded up our 3 kids and the absolute necessities and, in the middle of a sleet storm, began to drive. That first day, we were stopped in Ukraine over and over again by the police, harassed, fined for imaginary offenses, held up for bribes. The second day, hoping to power through, we drove 25 hours straight, to the Polish border. There, we sat in our car for nearly 4 hours, as the line for the border inched ahead, and the Ukrainian mafia strolled up and down, tapping on car windows, demanding money.
When they got to us, Tim refused to pay them. I never understood the logic behind the way my cop-husband chose to deal with the Russian and Ukrainian police. Sometimes he paid; other times, wouldn’t. He might engage them in his perfectly-adequate Russian, or he might pretend he didn’t understand a word they were saying. This was one of the times he chose to understand and refuse them. Oh God, I thought. They’re going to shoot us all.
In those days and situations—in which we found ourselves often—praying was as natural and consistent as breathing. For hours, days, on that trip, my pattern of respiration became breathe in-pray-breathe out-pray. Prayer had become part of the air around the 5 of us, in that car.
Astonishingly, that night, the mafia left us alone. They didn’t pull us out of line for interrogation—something that happened other times, certainly, but not that one. They didn’t make us go to the end of the line. They didn’t ensure that our documents would be “out of order.” They just…walked on to the next car. And our family exhaled a collective, gratified prayer, and inched our car forward another yard.
One minute past midnight found us sitting in front of the Customs booth at last, while a friendly Polish official examined our passports. And it struck me: It’s Christmas Day. We are far from home, in a hostile world, just like Mary and Joseph. Never have I felt such kinship with the Christmas story.
And after that long, long night (because there was still an hour and a half of driving before we found a hotel in Poland,) things began to look brighter. We had entered westernized Europe: the very atmosphere was lighter. There was a spiritual difference in the air so real as to be nearly tangible. No longer did we fear being exploited, cheated, and robbed by the law. Strangers smiled at us and said, “Welcome.”
This is where we are in the Advent story. It is the longest night of the year: We are sitting in a place of hopelessness, danger, fear. With every breath, we inhale pleas and exhale hope. We want to think that God is part of the equation, but we don’t always have the courage to believe it.
And then, the border crossing through the solstice, into gradual daylight. Into friendly faces, and the birth of hope, and a place of rest. There may be worse things coming; as anyone who has read the Biblical account of the Christmas story can tell you. There is still Herod’s infanticide—the wholesale slaughter of every male child under the age of 2—in his madman attempt to kill the prophesied, newborn King. For our part, that was not our last, nor our worst border crossing in Ukraine. But the exodus from the Solstice into December 22nd, from Advent into Christmas, is the journey from hopelessness into hope. It is not an instantaneous happy ending: there is still war to be waged, a return journey to be made. There is still a child to grow up, more intrigue and brutality to navigate before the seeming defeat of Good Friday and the ultimate triumph of Easter.
Christmas is the birth of hope. The journey lies ahead, but the first steps have been taken, and the outcome is assured. John the Apostle sums it up aptly:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.