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My church featured this in its 2009 Advent reader, with submissions by a range of the church’s members. Sharon, the editor of the reader and my self-appointed “Spiritual Mother Hen,” flattered me by putting it in the December 25th slot.

Christmas 1999 was the bottom for me. It pretty much didn’t get any worse, though it wasn’t the last time such despair and hopelessness was upon me. I was deep within my agnostic/atheist period. I never wanted to hear about God and the great things that await if I would just get out of the way of whatever God had planned for me.

At the time I lived with my elderly grandmother Virginia. Though we lived a few rooms apart, we were miles apart during those years. Years before, she used to be my friend and confidante. She was my champion and defender against the more testosterone-driven forces in my family. So it was all the more tragic that we had a deep division come between us in those last couple years of her life. She had caretakers who lived next door and, living out their evangelical calling, they included her in a lot of their family life. It was not lost on me that their offer was better than the pathetic state of affairs back home. They brought her a lot of sunshine, something which I was almost at a total loss to do then.

Christmas day pretty much came and went, and it was as alienating and depressing as any other day (perhaps more so since many places were closed and other friends were off doing their holiday celebrations). Usually at the last minute I was offered to join another’s party or family gathering. I was often an orphan because there was so little holding my family together then. That year I fell through the cracks even more than usual. There is only so much cheer to be had with an elderly grandmother who can’t cook or host anymore, and a father who never liked the holidays. There wasn’t a lot to work with.

My grandmother lived in a room that was a couple rooms over from the living room. She could not hear or see well and often did not know what was going on the house. I started a fire in the fireplace and got it going to a blaze and then, at 11 o’clock at night, and almost as if I was not at the controls, I walked into her den and summoned her to come to the living room (but didn’t mention the fire). She was confused and incredulous. After all, I had been a pretty downer neighbor and she had come to expect little of me. Her Christmas was over. After a few iterations of my offer she got up and shuffled out where she was greeted by the warm orange blaze and her rocking recliner. She looked delighted but perplexed.

What followed was a conversation that eventually evoked the good old times. She was rather incredulous for a while, but as we sat and talked, the emotional ice melted and for a while—for about four hours in fact—we had something we had not experienced for years since I began my journey into adulthood and had started living a secret life away from the adults in my life.

It is hard to say who gave and who received the one Christmas present that passed between us that night. Though that night had some lingering magic, it was not sustained during the last year and a half of her life. Somehow though it was enough to show me how far gone I was. Implicit was the need to change course. Virginia lived to see one more Christmas but it wasn’t in our house. In the years since, I have striven to never be so disconnected again. It was only a modest deed that started this long slow redemptive process for me. These days—far from my agnostic days—it is clear that God needed me back in the fold, and that was made possible by bringing someone else back into the fold!

That night was an unplanned and unrecognized acting out of both the winter solstice and the birth of Jesus: after the descent into darkness comes the light. The solstice is the condition of actual darkness. The birth of Jesus is the illuminating light that will draw us out of the spiritual darkness that surrounds us. People trust the solstice because it happens every year and does not require faith. But the light of Jesus has the power to break into even the darkest corners of our souls when we least expect it, and even fear it and reject it.

These days I savor Advent and Christmas. I practice a non-commercial Christmas so I am left with the time and energy to enjoy the company of others, get to church and to anticipate—if not to actually bring—the light that pierces the darkness.

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