As a child, I used to wake up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and sneak downstairs to see if Santa had come. Holding my breath and tiptoeing carefully in the dark, I never turned on lights or entered the living room—I just peered in with longing and anticipation. Magic had invaded my living room and I instinctively knew to tread lightly on such hallowed ground.
The Celtic tradition called such sacred space “thin places”: a place where the veil between heaven and earth, or the supernatural and the natural, is thin. Upon encountering such an enchanted place, the Celts would often mark it with some kind of standing stones, a practice that though foreign to us now was also common among the forefathers of our faith.
Much of our culture is unpracticed in enchantment. Those of us who are children of the Enlightenment are wary of the idea of something beyond ourselves, much less that this divine whatever might somehow intersect with our world. And if there is, then it must be more a spiritual or mental state than anything embodied.
However, even a rationalist culture whose celebration of Christmas is more aptly a celebration of consumerism cannot shake the enchantment of Christmas. We love our Christmas myth—that just for one night, snowmen can talk, Santa is real, miracles are possible, and goodness prevails. A quick scan of any collection of Christmas movies will reveal a surprisingly common theme—through some kind of supernatural in-breaking, the most hardened or self-centered skeptic can be transformed through faith. Oh, and this redemption will somehow culminate on Christmas day.
As Christians, we sometimes let this irritate us, as if the culture’s narrative has co-opted ours, and by doing so, somehow diminished the reason for the season. But perhaps there’s another explanation. What if God himself taking on flesh—weak, helpless, newborn flesh at that—has cosmological implications? What if the Incarnation, where heaven and earth meet not in a moment but in a man, so foundationally shook creation that even a hollow celebration of such a hallowed event would whisper of the True Story?
Preparing for the Journey
Believers and unbelievers alike, we gather our tribes and prepare our feasts, gifts, and rituals, hoping that maybe just for a moment, we might experience the transcendent and be transformed.
Thin places, though, don’t operate like a genie on demand. The Celts believed that to behold the divine you must either stumble into these thin places unexpectedly, or you must come with proper reverence and ritual at the proper time. The divine encounters you, not the other way around.
Jews had a similar understanding of approaching God, but would have added a right sacrifice to the list, for they knew that not only was an encounter with the divine on God’s terms and not theirs, but also that such an experience was dangerous.
Encountering God is dangerous both because he is far mightier and holier than we can even imagine, but also because seeing the Infinite means we see ourselves accurately. With unveiled eyes we see our own unworthiness and finitude as well as the sad state of the human condition. We glimpse the divine only to return to daily life because we are still waiting on God.
The veil may be thin and torn, but it’s still there.
The Final Approach
The more we make this journey, the more oriented we are to the Christian Story, and we realize that our role as ambassadors is not merely to pursue a personal spiritual quest each December, but to point the way for the others. Like a child peering into the living room in the dark, not quite sure of what she sees, our culture catches glimpses of a deeper magic at work, and whether they know it or not, longs for more. If we are to invite others into such a dangerous journey, however, we must be sure we know the way.
The path began in the season of Advent. Through its rituals and practices, we prepare our approach to the Thin Place. We begin in the darkness, mourning and lamenting this world waiting in exile. We light a candle as a sign of our hope and sing our songs of promise in that place where the darkness and the light meet.
As we see hints of our destination on the horizon, the frenzy and noise of the world seems to pick up. But we don’t relent—we light more candles as a sign of peace to the weary world.
At last, we make our final approach. This whole time we’ve been looking for some kind of standing stones to mark the way, but as we gather on Christmas Eve and lift our candles high, we realize that we are in fact the standing stones. Then we feast, not because we’ve arrived or everything is perfect, but because it is a proclamation that the light has won and will soon come to claim its victory. We eat, drink, and make merry, for yesterday we were dead!
The purpose of preparing our offerings and our hearts to enter the thin place of Christmas is not simply to get one more hit of encouragement to make life bearable until the next dose. It is not to escape this broken world, but to be reoriented to it.
When the lights turn off and the tree comes down, we begin this new year living into the Christian Story, which is to say, with a renewed love for God, a renewed hope that this world is not all there is, a renewed vigor for the work at hand, and a renewed identity as ambassadors for the kingdom, outposts of light in a world of winter.
What keeps me up at night now is not childlike anticipation but the weight of waiting. As the years march on the dark only seems to get darker. Christmas comes and Christmas goes and the new year is not better than the last. The hope and resolve that is so plentiful now will run dry, leaving us as weary this year as last year.
So keep watch with me. Though my hope my waver, God’s intimate involvement in my life does not. Though my resolve may falter, God’s promises never fail. As the cold, silent hours turn into years, and the innocent joy of our childlike faith is replaced with a broken and bruised but in-process faith, let us keep watch for the One who will come in the night bringing the light for once and for all.
Cover image by Darkness.