The absence of light is almost oppressive this year. For weeks, those of us who live in northern latitudes have been getting up in the dark, driving to school in the dark and coming home in the dark. Every day we lose a little more light and the lamps have to burn for longer. Often it feels as though the gloom outside is mirrored by the shadows inside. News reports. Sickness. Friends in pain. Voices that whisper and demand to be heard.
As the darkness continues to gather momentum I have found myself drawn again and again to Psalm 73. It has become my Christmas psalm. The first verse is a bold declaration of God’s goodness, quickly overshadowed by the confession that, despite his best efforts, the psalmist’s feet are slipping. Images of chaos and pain have chipped away at his soul and hope is hanging by a thread.
All that opposes God is flourishing. Evil goes unpunished. Suffering multiplies endlessly. Men and women throw unspeakable taunts at the heavens and walk away unscathed, pride pinned to their breast as a badge of honor. As the arrogant flourish, the faithful are broken and beaten down.
Met with silence, the psalmist can no longer deny the questions that have been stubbornly gathering in his heart. Does God really see what is going on? Is He powerless to act or does He simply not care? Has God forgotten us? Torn between his desire to believe and the agony of the reality before him, the psalmist is in turmoil.
At the moment when his faith is almost consumed, we find one sentence that completely changes the direction of the psalm, scattering shadows and beginning to restore hope: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me until I entered the sanctuary of God” (v16–17). Tortured by fear and confusion he brings his questions into the presence of God.
From a human perspective, the anguish around him remains unchanged. Suffering and evil continue to inflict fresh wounds on an already bleeding world. The difference for the psalmist is that the story no longer ends there. He has been given an opportunity to see beyond his tears and into the heart of the God who is present. The result is that instead of a creed to recite, he now has a story to tell. A story about a God whose presence is the difference between despair and hope. A story about a God who gave Himself the name Immanuel.
Soon the winter solstice will be upon us. On the twenty-second of December the sun will struggle into the sky for just a few short hours before sinking below the horizon once again. Taken in isolation, this day could viewed as a victory for darkness. Without the benefit of history we could be forgiven for believing that the light will gradually be swallowed up and disappear. Armed with the bigger picture, we know that the longest night is simply a turning point. There are dark days still ahead but, from this night on, the coming of the light is inevitable.
In these days, as the advance of darkness is halted, Christmas rushes in. Twinkling lights are strung between rooftops and wrapped around pine trees. Feasts are laid out and gifts are given in celebration of the true Light that has come into our darkness. Candlelight spills from crowded halls as familiar music banishes the silence and the story is told again. The story about a God whose presence is the difference between despair and hope. The story about a God who gave Himself the name Immanuel.
There is so much to grieve over, both in our world and in our individual lives. As shadow piles on shadow we can find ourselves stumbling in the dark, the questions gathering stubbornly in our hearts.
“Does God really see what is going on?” The Christmas story answers, “Immanuel, God is with us.” “Is He powerless to act or does He simply not care?” The Christmas story answers, “Immanuel, God is with us.” “Has God forgotten us?” The Christmas story answers, “Immanuel, God is with us.”
If the psalmist found hope in the presence of God, then for us Christmas is the turning point. There may still be dark days ahead but, from that night on, the coming of the light has been inevitable. Immanuel, our God is with us.