The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned . . . Isaiah 9:2
It was dark, in those days. Very dark. Rome ruled Israel, the latest in a long line of conquerors. David’s line seemed all dried up after a succession of useless kings who led a great people to ruin. Caesar had ordered a new census with an eye toward his coffers.
The more people he could account for, the more taxes he could raise; the more taxes he could raise, the more people he could conquer. And so on and so on.
There was no one to challenge him in those days, no one who could shake the grip of the Roman Empire. Israel was a conquered people doing the will of a Caesar they neither chose nor revered nor trusted.
And so it was that Joseph put Mary on that donkey to take the long trip to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. They were not going for a great family reunion, tables laden with favorite foods and local delicacies. They were not headed home for a religious celebration with its own time honored traditions and deep roots in their faith.
They were doing the bidding of Caesar, whose command had come at just the wrong time for their lives, just when Mary’s pregnancy was coming to an end. When she should have been home in Nazareth surrounded by relatives and neighbors who could help her through the trial of labor, she was far from home, alone with only Joseph to attend her.
There was nothing about this story that seemed right, nothing that felt warm or homey or comforting. Mary got pregnant too early and under circumstances no one could believe. Joseph, confused and angry, was ready to quietly un-engage her, until an angel intervened.
And if that wasn’t enough, Caesar interrupted the whole thing with his call for a census, requiring a trip to Bethlehem, a place far from the home and family they knew. They would travel all that way, endangering themselves and the baby, so their conquerors could collect more tax money. This is not a happy story. Not yet.
If you are hurting or angry or confused or just plain weary this Advent season, you are in good company, at least according to the actual Biblical story. If you are lonely or grieving this Advent season, your story is their story, a people who had been conquered for centuries, wondering if God had forgotten them. If you’re not up for being full of good cheer and cringe at the thought of trying to do or attend all the things (that are roaring back fast this year) you are not being a Grinch.
In fact, you may know better than most the real struggle in this story we know almost too well. Perhaps those with troubled hearts might just have the ears to hear the depth of pain and longing the “holly jolly” approach has written right out of the story. This is the quiet story, not the one of hustle and bustle and ringing cash registers.
This is the story that makes room for pregnant teenagers and confused husbands and people who wonder what God is up to—or even sometimes, if God is up to anything, but who go anyway. This is the true story, according to scripture, the story that has almost been drowned out by demands for good cheer and rushed festivities that actually have little to do with the nativity.
The birth of Christ was as far from a Hallmark Christmas special as it possibly could be. Don’t be snowed by the hype. If you are hurting in any way, if your heart is troubled, if you are limping instead of leaping, this is your story.
Advent is a time to prepare for the light coming into the darkness, which means that there is indeed darkness in the story. It does not have the last word, praise be to God. But the darkness is there, the struggle, the loss, the grief, the disappointment and anger–no matter how hard the marketers push to convince us otherwise. In the past twenty months, many of us have met new shades of darkness we’d not encountered, in ourselves, in those around us, in our world.
If you are searching for the light, longing for it amidst the darkness, limping into Advent, you are not alone. The Bible tells us so. May we wait together in the darkness, searching for the light that cannot be overcome.
Rev. Alicia Davis Porterfield has served as a chaplain and writer and currently serves on pastoral staff in a local congregation. This post originally appeared in December 2015. Since the original publication just weeks after Alicia lost her father, she has moved with her family from one region of the country to another, left one ministry position for another ministry position, and lived through moving her mother to a memory care community, sending her oldest off to college, and learning to navigate a global pandemic. She is definitely limping into Advent this year.