Deep Into the Unexpected

12-22-2014 | Lindsay

The shadows of the trees in the creek valley behind Foxfire and Pinestone in mid-afternoon are long and slender strips. The sun's rays slant almost horizontal and deeply gold through the forest. It is nearly the winter solstice, and the dark comes early in this third week of Advent. It is a thin time, perhaps the thinnest of all: a threshold time of waiting and expectancy.

The other night we gathered at Deer Spring to sing Christmas carols. The lyrics of these beautiful, traditional melodies are infused with hope and the sure knowledge of the coming of the light. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" we sing, and "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus" and "Joy to the World." We proclaim the prophecy of Isaiah, "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" and read smoothly the nearly memorized, beloved words from Luke, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled...and Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem..."

But what if we, who read the stories of shepherds and angels and mangers so calmly and confidently, so sure that we know what Christmas is all about, are missing something. After all, the stories of Christmas weren't told during Jesus' lifetime. They were told long afterwards by people who knew how the story ended and were therefore able to imagine how it began. And so we too see it all through that lens of knowing, and it makes our vision myopic, so we see and experience only a fraction of what this season is about.

Here's the thing about the unexpected: it catapults us, willy-nilly, into a whole other way of seeing.

Three years ago, about this time, I was musing about what it would be like to participate in the biblical infancy narratives without the benefit of hindsight, trying to hear the stories without knowing how it all came out. It was a mild December that year. One night was particularly warm and cloudy, with a mild, gusty wind. Drifting clouds veiled the pale moon. I glanced out the kitchen window and saw that Scot and Linda's home, across the field, appeared to be unusually brightly lit. Scot and Linda were away, and I was caring for their pets; so this seemed especially odd, since I was sure that after feeding their cats earlier in the evening I had turned off all the interior lights, leaving on only the one small outside light by the front door. It was late now, and I was in what passes for my nightwear: sweatpants, old shirt, and slippers. Without forethought, I stepped out the side door into the night, no flashlight, and proceeded to walk across the edge of the field. Suddenly I heard rustling, then hooves. Lots of hooves, running, running, running in all directions. It seemed the field was alive, the air was moving, rushing past me; I was surrounded by a maelstrom of whirling air, and, I feared, bodies. Several dark shapes flew past me; then a smaller, shape, low to the ground, shot across about a foot in front of me and disappeared into the woods on my right. I thought "fox" or perhaps it was only my cat, fleeing. Then I imagined myself in the way of some panicked deer; our bodies colliding. I froze.

I love the night and the dark; I love its mystery, its sense of things happening in the deep, but I was, in that moment, afraid. I felt vulnerable; I didn't know what next would come flying through the dark, from what direction, going where. I was almost close enough to Scot and Linda's house by then to determine that nothing was amiss. It was just that the outside light was reflecting off the window, doubling its brightness. But, frankly, I was not inclined to continue my journey to find out for sure. I turned around and headed back to Pinestone, where I live. As I stepped into the haven of the laundry room and then the kitchen and the warmly lit living room, I was reverberating from my encounter. I went about my customary night-time routine, but the air felt numinous. I was launched for a time into a new dimension of awareness.

It made me wonder, what if we could enter the Christmas stories at the point of unknowing, the threshold of the unexpected? What if an unusually bright light called us to walk off in only our pajamas? What if the dark air around us came suddenly alive? What if we saw God in a manger?