“Part of the mystery of grace is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence.” – Christian Wiman
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On Sunday, I went to see a performance of A Christmas Carol put on by my college church congregation. My brother played Old Marley: “He was as dead as a door-nail.” The cast did an excellent job, and my brother’s acting even sent a chill down my spine (and caused some children to have be escorted out of the play whilst he was on stage due to his frightening appearance)
I have watched A Christmas Carol before, and honestly never quite liked it. As a child, I would practically beg for my dad to turn any television screening of it off, partly because I found the ghosts to be frightening and partly because it seemed like a bummer-of-a-program to watch at Christmastime when we could’ve been watching the Disney Channel. Scrooge was grumpy. The ghosts were creepy. And as for his change of heart? I was skeptical. But part of getting older I suppose is acquiring a taste for the things you once pushed away, and for me that includes things like seafood, “boring” books about history, and yes, even A Christmas Carol.
This time around, I found A Christmas Carol to be much less creepy, perhaps because I knew the ghost was really my brother in an impressive amount of gray and white makeup. I found myself even enjoying the visits of the ghosts, how they remind Scrooge of the importance our pasts and presents play in our future, but how even our futures (though they may seemed doomed) are at the mercy of grace. But I still found myself skeptical, unbelieving of Scrooge’s radical change of heart by the end of the play. Could such a miserable, selfish man really turn his life around in such a short amount of time? I liked the idea of grace and mercy, but did I really believe it? Maybe I had more of Scrooge in me that I cared to admit…
You see, Christmas for skeptic can be quite the struggle. In my experience, I’ve tried to fight away my skepticism, exert an effort that would push away doubt and embrace the depth of (positive) feeling that so many others seemed to possess. As a child, I remember putting such effort into injecting cheer into the Christmas season; I would decorate my bedroom with intricate displays of my dolls, complete with lights, a miniature Christmas tree, and construction paper signs reading “North Pole this way!” in green and red crayon. And for a while, these rituals “worked.” I was cheerful on Christmas because my Christmas was cheerful, centered on fun family time and tasty treats.
But by the time my later high school years came and in to college, the pressures of the season – of buying the “right” gifts, of making the most of those 25 days of December, of completing college exams while still remembering the reason for the season, of not feeling too lonely or sad even though I felt lonely and sad – made my fabricated cheer harder to conjure up. Eventually, it’s easier to just be skeptical about everything than it is to do the hard work of learning to see sadness and joy in the same season. It’s easier to accept that nothing will ever change than it is to hold on hope in something that seems so hypothetical.
Which brings me to last Sunday night, sitting in a pew in Western Pennsylvania watching my college church put on A Christmas Carol. Our pastor, Ethan, came out before the play and shared how the message of it reminds us that none us, not one person, is beyond the saving grace and mercy that Jesus came to bring. His words, I thought, seemed more for those who aren’t saved, for those who don’t know Jesus or are purposefully “walking in darkness.” But as the play ended and the lights came up, and I found myself still skeptical that a man as rotten as Scrooge could ever have such a change of heart, I realized Ethan’s words were for, well, me. The skeptic.
There are many days when I don’t notice my skeptical heart. But the more in tune I become with the rhythms of my heart and the more I lean into the practices of silence, slowing, and prayer, the more I realize how much the ghosts of doubt, of cynicism, haunt me. I choose to dismiss the truth as simply a story, a fiction, a play that someone made up. If my life were a play, I often choose to sit with the house lights down, in darkness while the production goes on. The grace of this time of year though, is that Advent does begin in the darkness. Advent exists because of the darkness. And even though my skeptical heart shirks away, the reality is that it is all real.
The stories of Advent are real stories of people of darkness: Jesus’s very lineage has women like Tamar who became pregnant through deceptive incest, men like Jacob who lied and cheated. Jesus had a mother who no one believed and a father who doubted a very angel of the Lord. Advent and the story of Jesus’s lineage is a story haunted with its own ghosts, stories where God used skeptics to be part of the redemption story. And the parts of Scripture when it seemed that God was absent, when the darkness was great, even blinding? Well as the quote I shared at the beginning of this post says, even the past is mysteriously suffused by grace. In the dark, in the hearts of skeptics, God was writing scenes of salvation.
The skeptic in me sometimes wants to wallow in the dark, to continue to be like Scrooge: set in my ways and hardened to the world. But as Tish Harrison Warren wrote in her remarkable piece about Advent in the New York Times, “Both darkness and light are real, and our calendar gives time to recall both. But in the end, Christians believe the light is more real and more enduring. There is still good news to celebrate, even when — perhaps especially when — it’s been a hard year.”
The skeptic in me wants to shake my head at A Christmas Carol, shrug it off as sentimental, as the redemption of it to be too impractical, too improbable. But as Jesus’s lineage, as the stories of Advent remind me, our God is an extravagant God who often works in ways we would label as impractical and improbable. So on the days when I’m aware of the darkness in me, in others, in the world, I ask God to help my eyes to become more adjusted to love the light. I ask him to raise my head so I can look at all the things that are wrong and to grieve that, but to look at those things and see that nothing lies beyond God’s boundaries. I ask him to see the mysteries of grace and mercy in my past that’s suffused with it, in my present that has joy because of it, and in my future that has hope even when I sit in the dark, skeptical of it all.
“Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 28