Every heart, every heart to love will come but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That's how the light gets in. – Anthem, Leonard Cohen
Russian aggression. Zika panic. Police shootings. Children without clean water in Flint, MI. Refugees risking everything to escape violence. Terrorist attacks in Brussels, Turkey, Nice. Wildfires and drought in parts of the US and Canada. Brexit, Trump, and renewed division and suspicion buoyed by populist movements across the west. The Pulse nightclub shooting. Continued war and tragedy in Iraq and Syria.
2016 has been a dark year in so many ways.
And then there were the deaths. Not just politically and historically significant deaths, like Antonin Scalia or Fidel Castro. So many of the people who died this year were people who inspired and encouraged us with their work, their art, and their warmth. Harper Lee, Patty Duke, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Sharon Jones, Muhammad Ali, Florence Henderson, John Glenn...the obituaries kept coming at a record-breaking rate.
The shadows cast by the losses and tragedies of this year can feel unendurable. But in the midst of the grieving and the heartache, I saw light alongside the pain and loss.
When David Bowie died in January of 2016, it was the end to his music-making here. His fans shared their sense of loss with the world, through tributes and, naturally, by sharing their favourite songs. And something interesting happened. People who had never paid much attention to the person or the music of David Bowie, or known anything of him past the briefest awareness and the names of a couple of his most famous songs or albums--those people clicked on links and bought songs and read biographical essays...and beauty spread a bit further into the world.
Again and again, this year, I saw beauty follow sadness, touch people, connect people. We watched movies we'd never watched before to understand the artistry of Alan Rickman and the genius of Gene Wilder. Maurice White and Sharon Jones were introduced to young people who had never heard of Earth, Wind, & Fire or The Dap-Kings. We listened to our fathers reminisce about Florence Henderson, America's Mom. We looked to the sky with renewed wonder, reminded that it has only been a little over half a century since John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, heralding an era of space exploration and discovery that inspired a generation.
We often have occasion to remember that no joy in this life comes to us entirely unmixed with sorrow. The wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest, and the poor we will have always. It's clear that an earthly, here-and-now paradise is not promised to us.
But that truth brings with it this comfort: there is no sorrow entirely unmixed with joy. In the face of tragedy, we can be stirred to greater passion, greater dedication to love, greater gratitude for the people around us. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, the deadliest in US history, writer and composer Lin-Manuel reminded me of this truth in his sonnet, delivered at the Tony awards in lieu of an acceptance speech:
Anyone who has driven a highway at night knows that the more complete the darkness is, the more brilliant and eye-catching even distant or scattered light. We know that
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5
In a time of fear, I've seen generosity and hospitality to refugees reach into my own small town, shedding light and building community where there could have been suspicion or apathy. Hurricanes and wildfires have inspired outpourings of aid and comfort. Friends struggling with private sorrows have forged brave new beginnings, been lifted by the prayers and kindness of unseen friends, and found strength where they thought there was nothing but weakness.
I write this during the darkest week of the year. The nights are long around me and the days are short and cold. Here, in the dark, is when Christian tradition marks the coming of the Light of the World. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." Christ came to an occupied land, to a stable in an over-crowded town, to a humble man and woman. God became man and came to live among us, not despite our sins and the darkness and hardness of our hearts, but—o happy fault!—because of them, in response to them.
I quoted Leonard Cohen when I began this post.
"There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in."
This has been a year to leave us our hearts feeling bruised and broken. But if we bring them with us to the manger this Christmas, perhaps the Light will get in through the cracks in our hearts, that we too may shine in the dark places and be not overcome.