When the brutal attacks happened in Paris a few weeks ago, I had a lot I wanted to say. I love Paris. I spent most of my high school years dreaming about it as I learned to speak French. Then, when I was 20, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to spend a semester studying in England. One of the scheduled long weekends offered during the term was a trip by Chunnel to Paris. It literally was a dream come true and the friends I traveled with can attest to how annoying I was when I pointed out the Eiffel Tower from every corner of the city.
My heart broke when the news did. And I watched as the world mourned with the city of lights, standing in solidarity with its “beautiful” people. A day earlier, bombs had exploded in Beirut, and I wanted to make sense of the widespread compassion for one city and virtual ignorance of another. I’ve been mulling the words and the questions for weeks, and thanks to the Internet, I know I’m not the only one thinking them. I do not like to stir up controversy for its own sake, and I still think we need to ask ourselves why it is easier for us to mourn with Paris than it is Beirut or Syria or any other place that is regularly marked by war. One friend suggested that maybe it is because we can see ourselves there more easily. We can imagine ourselves at a club or a concert or shopping mall and having terror invade those spaces. We cannot picture ourselves in a world where violence and terror are normal, everyday things.
So I was going to write an entire blog post about all of that, challenging us to care about people who we might not consider “beautiful” and to mourn with places we do not think of as “enchanting.” (I love what Annie Rim has done with this challenge for Advent. Check out her daily Advent prayers for the hard situations in the world starting here with day one.)
But a lot has been said about Paris. And the world seems darker by the day. I do not want to add to the darkness. Nor do I want to deny that it exists.
What do we do, I wondered, when the darkness seems to be winning?
We stood in the city square surrounded by hundreds of people next to an unlit Christmas tree. The weather was mild for almost-December, more than 50 degrees, no rain or snow or wind. We pressed close to the stage where the holiday festivities would begin. Although I’m an introvert and often prefer to stay home, there is something about a gathering of people kicking off the Christmas holiday that draws me to it. Yes, there is the downtown parking and the crowd of people, but there’s also a spirit of cheerfulness, hot cider and this year, we discovered, some amazing hand-held sweet waffles from a local bakery.
There’s also Santa on a fire truck and music. We were close enough to the stage this year to actually see the performance that preceded the tree lighting–a musical performance of silliness and song featuring elves, obscure Claus relatives, Jack Frost and dancing snowmen. It was like Elf meets The Santa Clause meets Frozen.
It was ridiculously wonderful. We danced and sang along, participating in the celebration of a season that is special for so many reasons.
And then the group performing surprised me. They sang two carols, the kind you would hear in church around Christmas, and as the crowd listened and sang along, the good news of Jesus’ birth spread as far as the sound system carried the words. Now, I know that lots of people sing Christmas carols and don’t pay any attention to the words or what they mean. But standing there in the square, surrounded by people, joining my voice to the chorus of “Joy to the World,” I was overcome with a sense of rightness and peace.
This is it, I thought. This is what you do when the darkness seems to be winning. You stand in the city square and with a crowd of people you declare with one voice that there is still joy in the world. Not because of dancing snowmen or Santa or tasty waffles or pleasant weather, though it is okay to acknowledge those as good things.
There is joy in the world because darkness is the weaker force. As long as there is one person willing to light a candle, hold a flashlight or flip a switch, light will overcome. And if there is one person willing to hold a light in the darkness, there will be another person willing and another. One of my favorite things at Christmas is a Christmas Eve candle-lighting service, when the sanctuary goes dark and one person lights the candle they are holding and the flame passes from person to person until what was once a dark room is filled with individual glowing lights.
The world might seem dark, but Christmas has come at just the right time. To remind us that light overcomes darkness, that joy has come into a world that is often miserable, that hope is not as elusive as we might think.
Standing in the throng in the public square, we can say with confidence, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
Sometimes I wonder if it’s right to celebrate when so many people are suffering, whether globally or within my own circle.
But then I look at the lights of Christmas set against the dark of night and I know. We need the celebration. We need the lights and the singing and the friends and the family and the getting together, not only to remind ourselves that the world is not all dark but as a public declaration to whatever darkness encroaches that we still believe the light will win.
Whatever you are feeling about the state of the world, the state of your world, can I just encourage you?
Light the tree. Light a candle. Sing a Christmas carol. Or a song that makes you feel braver than you think are. Give someone a gift they’ll love. Hug your family. Or a friend. Say “Merry Christmas.” (Or “Happy holidays” and don’t get all bent out of shape about either one.) Act kindly. Serve someone you don’t think deserves it. Donate money or time or something with value to a charity (not just now but all throughout the year). Buy someone else’s coffee when you’re standing in line for yours. Write a letter to a loved one. Make a phone call. Take a picture. Or paint one.
Whatever it means to you to push back the darkness, do that.
Your seemingly little act of light just might be contagious.