Maybe it's different for people who live in the neon glow of the Vegas strip or for people from New York, the city that never sleeps. But I hail from rural Wisconsin, where life, for those still in the business of farming, is marked largely by the rising and setting of the sun. As soon as it's bright enough to wade through a field without stepping in cow poop, the cows are called in for milking. In winter, evening milking means calling the cows back into the barn before darkness sets in at 4 or 5 in the afternoon.
City people who struggle to spot constellations through a haze of light pollution overhead probably have less appreciation for just how dark it can get. It's why Daylight Savings Time was invented. It's also why Christmas came along. Christmas, as you may know, wasn't always tethered to December. Sure, early Christians started to celebrate Jesus' birth in addition to commemorating his death; but there was no general agreement about when he was actually born. Not until the 4th century did Christmas become a winter celebration.
The holy day got pinned to this darkened time of the year to help replace pagan worship of the sun god Sol, to whom ancients would turn when they just couldn't stomach the darkness anymore, positioning and praying for the return of the life-giving sun. At this gloomy time, it came to pass: The god of the sun was replaced by the Son of God.
That's probably why I , with my mild case of seasonal affective disorder, love so many of Isaiah's lines that illuminate our celebration of Advent. "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). "Arise, shine; for your light is come, and the glory of God is risen upon you" (Isaiah 60:1). Isaiah's hopeful words are like a unifying voiceover to countless displays of Christmas lights dotting the darkened horizon. Over here, a fringe of white icicle lights frames the roofline of your neighbor's ranch house. Over there, a multihued explosion of lights adorns the shrubbery that fronts your friend's Cape Cod. "I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight" (Isaiah 42:16).
You remember what it's like to be eight years old again as your eyes adjust to the cacophony of colors next door: the large weather-faded duo of Santa and Mrs. Claus that still manage to glow in the dark, a cordon of lighted candy canes lining the front walk, an entire life-size spotted Nativity ensemble... I like the simple lights in the windows; my kids are attracted to the gaudiest yard they can find. It's become family tradition for us to see the many ways people celebrate with lights this time of year. When we lived in Chicago, it was easy: We slipped on boots and coats over their pajamas and marched around the block. Now in Wisconsin we drive to a neighboring town or watch for farm houses that pierce the darkness with color against a desert of blackness.
The older I get and the more I gaze at Christmas lights, the more I recall a candlelight vigil one early December. Hundreds of us huddled in the cold Chicago darkness, at a given moment touching wick to wick to light a sea of white candles to remember four women raped and murdered in El Salvador for the Isaiah-like hope they were giving to the poor. At a time when we wonder if the lights on out houses too closely resemble the neon that blazes a message of commerce, a multitude of glowing bulbs reminds me of all the descendants promised to Sarah and Abraham.
I am comforted to know that we who worship the God of light and walk in the ways he illuminated are as countless as the lights that hug every twig on every decorated tree; and unlike those maddening sets of twinkle lights, whole strings of us will go on burning brightly even if one of us burns out!