What if the Chinese are the first to have meaningful contact with extraterrestrial life? That’s the question raised in an editorial I read recently. In the editorial, “first” meant “before the U.S.,” and the writer addressed economic and national defense concerns. His article reminded me of the classic spiritual adage – offered, I think, half in jest and half in earnest – that we ought to be less concerned whether there’s life after death and more concerned whether there’s life before death. The one who coined it addressed concerns about the ultimate meaning and present quality of the life we know here and now. What if the Chinese or anyone else are the first to have a meaningful encounter with true life here on earth?
The more my days dwindle and the closer I come to death’s portal, the darker becomes whatever lies beyond – not gloomy or depressing or foreboding but deeper, more impenetrably mysterious, more silently and universally embracing in an oddly inviting way. “Darkness within darkness,” is the way the Tao Te Ching describes it according to Stephen Mitchell’s fine translation, “the gateway to all understanding.”
Now here I am, five days before Christmas, the first one in thirty-six years for which I haven’t had the responsibility of pastoral leadership in a Christian congregation, and the signs have worn strangely thin. The creche, angels in solitary annunciation or heavenly chorus, shepherds, magi, brooding monarchs, even at their best and even in the mainstream Christian church, have largely been reduced to caricatures, characters in a children’s pageant. “How cute, how adorable.” The public loves the appearance of a little babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger but cannot begin to entertain the advent of a Rex tremendum with nail-pierced hands and sleepless eye.
But this Christmas is not a rerun of a performance played out two millennia ago, nor is it a dress rehearsal for a performance in which we expect to have a role in the future, onto which we invariably project our deepest personal needs and imaginings. It’s comforting to hide behind the rerun and the dress rehearsal in order to avoid the present reality that dispels our favorite illusions and leaves us to face life squarely, the life that is full of light and darkness, weal and woe (Isa. 45:7), that with its complexity and self-contradictions God surveyed and called good. But it’s that other life that waits to be unwrapped to reveal not what comes but what is, even here and now.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” Set aside your candles this Christmas Eve, and sit with me in darkness. Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding.