a light shines in the darkness
And we’re still trying to comprehend it.
This week has been a wild one, since between last weekend’s raft of maskless socializing and a more contagious virus circulating, a lot of people here in New York were getting tested for covid, and a heftier percentage than usual were turning up positive. (Anecdotally, but also probably statistically, the cases have been mild to very mild in vaccinated folks. Go get your booster.)
That led to cancellations of shows and parties, and obviously, that’s frightening; a lot of people have spoken about feeling like their trauma reflexes were triggered. You might not have known it from social media, but it’s not like March 2020, or even December 2020; the streets are still full, people are still out and about, and now, we know we have plenty of ways to protect ourselves from ending up very sick or in the hospital, and hope for more on the way. We’re pretty sure we know when this will subside (sooner than previous waves, it’s starting to seem). It’s sad and frustrating and angering and for some people still hugely dangerous. But on the broader scale, there’s plenty of reason to have measured hope. New Yorkers, accustomed to the unexpected, are pretty dogged about that sort of thing. That feels very different from back in those early days, when we had absolutely no idea what to do or what was happening. (We were sanitizing our groceries!)
But all this coming at Christmas, and on some of the (literally) darkest days of the year, has made everything feel a little darker, especially for people who had to once again cancel their holiday plans. We are, knock on wood, healthy and safe. I spent most of this week working and giving final exams. On Friday night, we had dinner at a restaurant in Chelsea in their particularly charming outdoor seating area — they had a fireplace — and then went to a tiny concert, held at someone’s house, with a small audience in attendance. The singers are friends of ours; they perform as Robinson & Rohe.
They’ve done their holiday show in front of a set of lightboxes made by another friend, which I’d seen in greeting card form but never full sized. They’re quite stunning, and I found them moving as I sat there listening to the music.
My experience with Christmas, through most of my life, has been filtered through one particular lens, largely refracted through a kind of evangelical outlook. Christmas is about our salvation, about accepting the gift that God gave, about “keeping Christ in Christmas,” that sort of thing. All good, but maybe incomplete.
It’s been challenging and instructive to see the holiday — which is, after all, a winter feast, purposely set at a time when the culture already celebrated a holiday — through the eyes of friends who come at it differently. The center light box panel, depicting a woman nursing a child in a stable, has text that reads “In the Middle of Winter a New Life is Born.” On the right, a raucous celebration is happening, with the text “Set the Table / Fill the Chairs.” On the left, two figures set out on a journey “on the longest night of the year,” and we see the cosmic passing of time.
Liam and Jean sing a lot of old folk tunes along with their own music, and their “Longest Winter” album is no exception, filled with ancient carols. The only kind of Christmas music I like are those old, old ones, which you can only imagine being sung around a campfire, clutching a clay cup of something hot, huddled beneath a scratchy blanket.
On Friday, instead, we sat on an assortment of chairs in someone’s living room, holding glasses of wine and cups of tea, slipping a mask down for a second to take a sip. Lights twinkled. Strands of colorful papercut art, made by a departed friend of our host, criss-crossed near the ceiling. We sang together from behind those masks, songs new to us, songs about the act of singing and hoping. One song we sang, with a slightly tweaked chorus for our time, I’ve known my whole life:
O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight . . .
Oh come, Desire of Nations, bind
All peoples with one heart and mind
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come
It’s a song that pleads for wisdom and understanding and peace. Emmanuel: God is with us.
Several years ago, I found myself at a Christmas Eve service that left me profoundly sad, and not in a good way. It had been a hard year for the world, and I’d been reflecting, almost without realizing it, on the fact that Christmas is supposed to be about comforting God’s people, telling the captives they are freed, that warfare is ended, that iniquity is pardoned, and that the rough places are being made smooth and easy. These days I prefer quiet midnight masses that verge on spooky.
Instead, I found myself listening to people talk about how I should join that church (one I’d never belonged to) and watching videos about how nice it was that God gave each of us, individually, a present that we could unwrap every day. It was peppy and bright and kind of manic, and I couldn’t really deal.
But there was one moment. They finally dimmed the lights, and we lit candles near the end, each of us holding our own, as we’d always done in church services at the church where I grew up. I assume we were singing “Joy to the World,” because that’s usually what happens then, but I don’t remember because I was suddenly arrested by the image in front of me. I was holding this candle with its tiny flame in the middle of the darkness, and I thought, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Some versions, including the very old King James Version, render that verse differently: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” You could take that to be an indictment, but I prefer to see it as a little hope. We don’t understand the light, especially in the swirling, dense dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still shining there.
It is Mary and Jesus, but not just them. The resonance of a story that echoes itself in patterns across all of human history. On the darkest nights, we feast near a warm fire, we set out on journeys that may last us the rest of our lives, and new life, small light, breaks through.
We are off between Christmas and the new year, so most of what I wrote this week is still forthcoming. But I did publish my best movies of 2021 list! It includes how to watch the films, too.
Been reading and watching
We started Station Eleven, which dropped its first three episodes on HBO Max two days ago (there will be ten in all). Yes, it’s an apocalypse story, but boy is it a lot more than that. If you liked The Leftovers (or the novel!) then this is must-see television.
I finished Fates and Furies — simply incredible — and just started in on The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, mostly for a piece I’m writing but also because I’ve never read Jemisin. I struggle, as always, to get my brain to snap into place with speculative fiction, but about 100 pages in I can tell I’m going to like it.
Odds and ends
If you want some good music for this week, you want The Longest Winter.