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The close and holy darkness

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Sunday, December 11th, 2005 — One Christmas evening many years ago, I stopped in at our next-door neighbor's house. Randy was sitting in the living room enjoying the post - Christmas dinner calm. He was listening to "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea - town corner...that I can never remember if it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve nights and twelve days when I was six."

I don't know if it was the deep, resonant sound of Dylan Thomas' voice or the story he wove from the Christmases of his childhood in Wales, but I was hooked. Every Christmas since then, our family -- whoever happens to be home -- gathers in the living room on Christmas evening to let Thomas work his magic one more time.

Most doze on and off, like the Uncles that Thomas talks about, loosening their buttons, and sleeping in front of the fire. Nonetheless, even half asleep the images come alive. We all listen for our favorite lines about crocheted nose bags, Useless Presents, and the Aunt who is, "alas, no longer whinnying with us."

Thomas concludes his story: "I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."

Close and holy darkness. Isnít this the landscape onto which Christmas, Chanukah, and winter solstice celebrations break?

It seems to me that our winter feasts recall the universal human experience of darkness -- fear, loss of someone dear to us, disappointment, lack of meaning -- and our longing for light that will give us hope.

Thomas' narrative is more than a story. It is an experience. It takes on a life of its own in our imaginations. Perhaps the Christmas story and others are meant to do the same. If so, we should take seriously their landscape of darkness. Not because we want to get stuck in some morose holiday funk, or Scrooge -- like withdrawal from the season. But because otherwise we miss the depth of possibility the stories contain.

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of a one - day supply of oil miraculously lasting for eight days. The rededicated Temple remained a beacon of hope and a sign of victory over the darkness of oppression.

At the first Christmas, a maverick star shone bright in the dark, wintery sky lighting up the way for a whole cast of characters to reach the child they were longing to find. Light shone in the darkness.

But darkness is a hard sell. Visions of sugarplums dance in our heads, not doom and gloom, or fear and trembling. The sugar - coated Christmas works for children. But for many adults it has a hollow ring.

The imagery of the Christmas story points something much richer. All of those angels fluttering about, shepherds running down from the hills, oxen kneeling (that's what the story says) at the feet of the babe, three kings who must have been road weary from years or at least months of wandering, finally arriving at the stable before the family leaves. And the real show stopper: the child's mother is a virgin.

The story is a mind bender. It is meant to be. Like A Child's Christmas in Wales, the delight is in the savoring, year after year. The images, individually and as a whole are intended to move us beyond our conventional ideas of reality, to expand our range of vision, and to open onto the belief that a way of life beyond our wildest dreams is possible. In the midst of the darkest days of the year -- which in some ways mirror the dark days of our lives -- hope wins out over fear. Joy will conquer sadness.

Even Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, gift - giving, and time shared with family and friends all convey this same message. They are expressions of unexpected kindness and generosity. Light shining in the darkness.

If we don't stop to reflect on these deeper meanings, both religious and secular, the spirit of the season is lost or distorted.

The Christmas story disarms us with its innocence. Because of our awe and delight the story erupts into an Alleluia chorus, and, yes, even a round of Jingle Bells. The story is about angels, but it is meant for real people.

Christmas joins with other traditions in affirming that the darkness is both close and holy. If we say some words of our own to this darkness during these winter nights, we just might hear the flutter of angels' wings in reply. It is both mystery and miracle. It is ours to savor.