The Longest Night

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. Winter Solstice

Read more: The Longest Night

Waiting For the Skies to Open

Christmas happens in one week, and I have done exactly zero shopping. I mean not one, single gift bought.

Partly, this is on purpose. I keep thinking that if I avoid it, it will all just go away. I hate shopping during the other 11 months of the year, but in my mind, the Tenth Circle of Hell must look something like The Maine Mall between Thanksgiving and January 1st.

This is the time of year when all our talk of “peace on Earth” flies right out the window, in the face of cold, hard, American consumerism. Gotta get those gifts bought, wrapped, and under the tree by the deadline. Santa’s own elves can’t possibly face the same kind of stress we put on ourselves to deliver, every Christmas Morning.

In the midst of all this angst, I am celebrating Advent for the first time. It’s a season I never paid attention to before. I always thought it was a Catholic thing. I’d filed it away in my mind with words like “Michaelmas” and “St. Stephen’s Day,” and “penance.” 

But last year, my publisher sent me a book of Advent readings as a Christmas gift, so I thought, “Okay, that could be kind of an out-of-the-box experience. Let’s do it!”

And Advent has absolutely blown me away.

It helps that the bottom has actually fallen out of my world this month. In my immediate family, I mean. In the last 3 weeks, our world has been flattened. You cannot imagine what life around here has been like. And through this long, painful period, I have been surprised to discover just who does and doesn’t seem to care. Which Best Friends don’t even ask. Who doesn’t check up. Yet others, whom I hardly know, are right there alongside me. It’s puzzling. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, this thing about who’s there and who’s not, in your world, on the days and weeks and months—and maybe years—when the bottom falls out.

Yet…I’m learning that it’s a grace to not have your usual support systems shoring you up. It leaves you all kinds of alone and naked with just…God. It makes Advent come to life. Advent: that original season of great expectation, when the whole world was lying near-dead, and abandoned-feeling, and in a huge, cold, and muddy ball of mess. Hopeless.

And after a long, long time of this, there was a group of night shift workers, tending sheep on a hillside, on the outskirts of a no-name little town. Since I worked night shifts for so many years, I have a special love for this part of the story: that the night shift was the first to hear the news.  Suddenly, on a night that was just like the other 364 before it, the black air split open with light, and all these improbable creatures—more improbable even than Bruno Mars’ backup singers—burst out of the sky and began to cry out, “Glory to God! Peace—Finally, peace!” These angels (which is what they turned out to be,) gave these shepherds MapQuest directions. Being people who took care of livestock for a living, the shepherds, presumably, weren’t surprised by what they found when they got there.

A barn. And a teenaged girl, far from home, who’d just given birth there. What in the world did she wrap the baby in? A borrowed blanket? Strips of her own robe? Something she’d brought along on the journey, just in case? But we know she laid him in a feed trough, for a crib. Why not? Once, when my family was traveling, and my second child was a baby, we used the bottom drawer of a dresser, in a hotel room as a crib. When you’re desperate, you do what you have to do.Jesus in a Manger

Read more: Waiting For the Skies to Open