Last night, the winter solstice, marked the longest and darkest night of the year. Days have been progressively shorter since the longest day of the year marked by the summer solstice on June 20, just fifteen days before we found out on July 5 that Alexander’s heart was no longer beating. Since that day, darkness has been eating away at daylight minute by minute each day as the days get shorter and the nights get longer.
Last night, on the longest and darkest night of the year, we gathered at our church for the Service of the Longest Night. This is the first year our church has offered this particular service–one that creates a safe space for grief and loss in the midst of a season where the world tries to tell us that we must be holly and jolly and happy. Scott and I were incredibly blessed to sit in a pew alongside some of our dearest friends. Friends who have walked with us since the very beginning. Friends who have walked with us day after day through shortening days and the lengthening nights. Friends who truly are our family here in Dayton.
We were blessed to see the support among our friends and pastors and church family who continue to wear their #AlexanderScott wristbands. It’s amazing how something so simple can mean so much. It’s as if seeing that wristband says to us: “I am with you.” “We are with you.” “You are not alone.” It says those things without a word sometimes, and it means more to us than people could possibly know.
The service last night included prayers and confession acknowledging the grief and heaviness that we are carrying into this season.
God, we are grieving over what might have been. A death or a loss has changed this day. Once it was a special day for us too. But, someone has died. Someone has left us. Someone has moved away. Something has been taken away. We have lost a job. We have lost our identity. We have lost a dream, a goal, a cause. We find ourselves adrift, alone, lost in a terrifying new world. This season reminds us of all that used to be, and cannot be anymore… This is our longest night, Lord. Please be near us tonight. We ask this in Jesus name.
We sang hymns that acknowledge the bleakness of winter and the hope that we try to cling to even in the midst of darkness and loss and days of hopelessness.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter long ago.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him–give my heart. (ELW #294, In the Bleak Midwinter)
We sang hymns beautifully crafted and led. In a number of moments I listened as those around me sang. I soaked in the words of hope and light that I need so desperately to hear in this season.
Yet I believe beyond believing,
That life can spring from death:
That growth can flower from our grieving;
That we can catch our breath
And turn transfixed by faith. (ELW #252, Each Winter As the Year Grows Colder)
And then, the gospel lesson for the day. One that always comes before Christmas, often in this fourth week of advent. A story of joyful family reunions and babies leaping inside the wombs of their mothers.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:39-45 NRSV)
If I’m being honest, this year at Christmastime it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of room for happy reunions and babies leaping in wombs. Even the moments that are filled with laughter and joy and glimpses of happiness are tinted by the reality of what is missing. Even the happiest moments bring with them thoughts of Alexander and how he should be experiencing the joy and wonder of Christmas with us this year. He should be here. This Christmas should be so different than it is.
As Pastor TJP delivered words of deep hope and joy last night, I found myself overcome with emotion and with tears welling up in my eyes. Her message was one which acknowledged the sadness and grief that we feel right now but also that this weariness that we are experiencing is exactly the world that Christ broke into on the night of his humble birth so many years ago. Christ broke into a world that was weary, broken, and dark. He broke into that world quietly and unassumingly, bringing a little bit of light to the darkest nights.
I remember when I was in seminary and taking a class on prayer with Dr. TW, who spoke often and openly about finding God in the midst of the darkest nights of the soul. In fact, he has a published book on just that topic. (Maybe it’s time to revisit some of his wisdom.) He reminded us regularly during our days in seminary that we would all face long, dark nights, and that sometimes hope would be difficult to see. Light would seem dim. And that it is in those times and in those seasons where we must draw close to the fire of the Spirit.
And so, I am so grateful that our church offered this Service of the Longest Night last night. This year has been so difficult. And, yet I am reminded also that from today, the days will start getting longer and the nights shorter.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)
Jesus breaks into our broken world. He breaks into our grief and our pain and our hurts. He breaks into broken relationships and political turmoil. He breaks into the depths and darkness of our soul. As we lit candles during the singing of Silent Night, I was reminded that even in a year that has taken so much from us, the darkness can never overcome the light. Even when the light seems dim, it always always always overtakes the darkness.
So hold on, you gotta wait for the light
Press on, and just fight the good fight
‘Cause the pain that you’ve been feeling,
It’s just the dark before the morning