For years, one of my favorite Advent rituals was to curate and post some version of the following on Instagram:
There was something comedic, absurd, and absolutely perfect about the gargantuan Christmas tree that ambushed me on my way to therapy in the weeks leading up to Christmas. As November’s end drew near, and darkness encroached on the sky, I would feel it coming—the inside darkness—weighty, anxious, predictable, and somehow a little funny. Every Monday at the end of the work day, I would walk 20 minutes east, offer a sort of nod-grunt-chuckle at the tree, and enter the building, aware that by the time I emerged 55 minutes later, I would be immersed in darkness…and in light.
This Christmas will be my tenth without my beloved dad. He died unexpectedly on December 23, 2012, and I wrote his eulogy as a 25-year-old on Christmas Day. While the celebration of his life was beautiful, the circumstances were not romantic. His final moments were painful and scary, and there were no peaceful conversations of closure. While my family and I have experienced great joy, growth, and healing in the years since my dad’s death, we still have not quite figured out how to do a totally “merry and bright” Christmas that works for all of us.
To be clear, I am no Ebenezer Scrooge (though if I were, I would be played by Michael Caine). Come the weekend after Thanksgiving, the Advent wreath is out, the cards are ordered, and Sufjan Stevens and Christmas Blend coffee carry me into December. I know I am not alone, however, in holding the paradox of this holy season. Nothing is ever all darkness or all light—not human beings and not seasons, whether on the calendar, in our own lives, or in the life of our world. We can find ourselves in Jesus’ and his family’s complicated story, artfully told and retold alongside prophetic messages of darkness and light, despair and hope, throughout Advent.
My most sacred Advent tradition has been attending an annual memorial service for people who have died while experiencing homelessness in Chicago. In pre-COVID times, Ignatian Spirituality Project, Harmony, Hope & Healing, and Chicago Coalition for the Homeless would gather folks at Old St. Patrick’s Church on the longest night of the year, in the cold of winter, to pray, sing, and tell stories. The name of each deceased person would be read aloud reverently, and volunteers would process with candles for each and place them on the altar. These people were here. They were our family. They mattered.
As the choir led us in their hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Night of Silence/Silent Night”, the light from the candles would be spread throughout the church, passed from person to person. The dimly-lit church would be transformed by the light uniting all of us, the dead and the living. That light of Christ shining in the darkness signifies God’s face in each human being, regardless of what we have or don’t have, what we’ve done or haven’t done, what people think of us or whether people think of us much at all.
“...till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” Since eulogizing my dad nine years ago, I have often invoked this lyric from my favorite Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” These words capture for me this bittersweet solstice ritual and its overlap with my dad’s story. Like many people experiencing homelessness, my dad struggled with addiction, trauma, mental health, and physical illness throughout his life. And like my dad, many people experiencing homelessness are loving and loved, funny and wise, smart and soulful. Again, no one is ever all darkness or all light.
Imbued with Christ’s light, each of our blessed, broken souls is worthy. The circumstances of my dad’s life—a support system, access to resources, a spiritual community—made sobriety possible for periods of time, including his final years of life, and I thank God for that. He had a home and a community who saw in him more than his wounds and his wounding. On the longest night of the year, though, I am reminded that the lines dividing us are imagined. People experiencing homelessness are my dad…are me…are the face of Christ.
“O Holy Night” connects us with Jesus who breaks chains: our chains, our family’s chains, the chains of the disenfranchised and dehumanized. During this complicated season, this Jesus longs for us to feel our worth and to help other people—ALL people—feel theirs too. What might we do or how might we be as co-creators of felt worthiness? Meanwhile, though God Incarnate doesn’t take away the darkness, the Light, born and yet to be born, shines anyway.