It’s the season of waiting, a thin time. The shadows along the river in the afternoon are long. The coral sun, tinged with gold, slants between the trunks of the sycamores and poplars. Margaret Atwood wrote:
This is the solstice, the still point
Of the sun, its cusp and midnight,
The year’s threshold
And unlocking, where the past
Lets go of and becomes the future;
The place of caught breath, the door
Of a vanished house left ajar.
It is the time of stories, cherished and familiar, the cadences falling off the tongue in song and poetry:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
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…
The prophecies, the stories we sing and recite in this luminous season were woven to this time long after the events they foretell and relate, repeated by those who knew how the story ended and so were able to imagine how it began. Centuries later, we hear it all through that same scrim of knowing, which dulls our senses so that we experience only a fraction of what this season of caught breath and surprise is about. But what if we didn’t know?
One December night many years ago at my home in Rolling Ridge I was puttering around the house tidying up before settling into a book and bed. The night was warm and cloudy, with a sultry, gusty wind. Drifting clouds veiled a pale moon. I glanced out my kitchen window and saw that my neighbors’ home across the field appeared to be unusually brightly lit. This seemed odd. They were away, and I was caring for their pets; I was sure that after feeding the cats earlier in the evening I had turned off all the lights, leaving on only the one tiny outside light by the front door. I was dressed for the night in sweatpants, flannel shirt, and slippers. Without forethought, I stepped out the side door into the night and proceeded to walk across the edge of the field toward the neighbors’ house. 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. Several dark shapes thundered past me; then a smaller, shape, low to the ground, shot in front of me and disappeared into the woods on my right. “Fox,” I thought. Instantly I imagined myself in the way of a panicked deer. Our bodies colliding. I froze. Then as suddenly as the air had erupted, it stilled.
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 didn’t know what next would come flying around me through the dark. I was close enough to the neighbor’s house by then to determine that nothing was amiss. It was just that the outside light was reflecting off a large window, magnifying its brightness. But I was in no mood to test my conclusion. I turned around and headed back to my house. As I stepped into the haven of the laundry room and then the kitchen and the warmly lit living room, I was reverberating. I went about my customary night-time routine, but the air felt numinous.
It made me wonder, what if we could step through that door left ajar and into the season’s familiar stories as the shepherds did, unknowing, at 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 and the heavens around us came suddenly alive? What if that vaulted us into vibrant awareness and we recognized Love gazing at us through the eyes of an infant in a manger lined with hay?