My eyelids sprang open at three in the morning. Christmas morning. I was seven years old. My half brother Joel—already twelve and too cool for kid stuff—lay sleeping soundly next to me on a makeshift cot in the dining room.
Fueled by the anticipation of Santa’s arrival and a record-shattering blood sugar level, my whole body had been vibrating with excitement all night. Around nine o’clock my parents had turned out all the lights in a vain attempt to get me to sleep. In the pitch dark I lay counting the minutes impatiently until sometime around midnight the sugar bender I was on finally came to a crashing halt.
But now I was fully alert. A glow seeped out of the living room behind us and poured itself thinly across the dining room floor. A faint, warm light coaxed recognizable shapes out of the darkness: the dining room table, the window frame, the doorway leading out toward the kitchen.
“Santa’s come,” I whispered to Joel.
I shook his shoulder and said directly in his ear, “Santa’s come.”
“Go back to sleep,” he said. “It’s three o’clock in the morning. You can’t wake them up this early.”
“But Santa’s come! He turned on the Christmas tree lights.”
This was back in the day before LED lights. Christmas tree bulbs burned hot, so you had to turn off the lights at night for fear of the tree catching fire and the house burning down. If the lights were on, I knew that only Santa could have turned them on to let us know that he had been there.
“Alright,” said Joel. “Look, you can’t wake them up. But I’ll let you tip toe to the door and peek in. Then you have to get back in bed and wait until at least 5 o’clock.”
I slipped out from under the covers and crept to the living room doorway. Stepping across the threshold I caught my breath. The gold foil wrapping the gifts captured the tree’s light and then cast it into the air like glimmering fairy dust.
Now you might think that I was excited about the gifts. But that wasn’t it. I was transfixed by the light and by what that light was doing to the room. I couldn’t have told you at the time. But it wasn’t just the light that took my breath away. It was what the light conveyed. It announced a presence. A presence that was transforming everything from the inside out.
For just a moment, I stood in a place whose very air smelled of welcome. If you have ever felt another’s delight in you, then you know what the golden light was whispering wordlessly to my soul. The energy that brought all things to be and holds all things together was murmuring in the innermost chambers of my heart: “You are my child. You are enough.”
I had sat in that room thousands of times, and yet I was transported to a place that I had only dimly hoped might exist. A place where I was completely okay and all was well. A place where meanness and pettiness never marred beauty. A place where trust was never violated. A place with no fear of rejection or want or loss.
The contrast with what anyone else would have seen and heard at my old address would have been jarring.
We lived in a shabby two-bedroom, one-bath house. It could not have been much bigger than 800 square feet. The weathered wood of the front porch sorely needed painting and routinely shed splinters into my bare feet.
The yard was a patchwork of weeds and dirt. The driveway was a two-track dirt path beaten by the repeated wear of car tires leading to a tumbledown shed out back.
To one side of the house lay an independent gas station and mechanic shop. It wasn’t much more than a pole barn with a garage. The smell of old oil and grease sat like a cloud over the place.
Behind the house stretched a junkyard littered with old car and truck bodies. Packards and Studebakers, ancient pickups and smashed station wagons lay scattered haphazardly around the lot. Many had hoods up and doors open, having been scavenged for cheap spare parts by clever do-it-yourself mechanics.
Inside our cramped and battered house the air was thick with discord. My father was controlling and abusive. My mother was beaten and wary but unbroken. Their marriage was dissolving, and a hole in the universe was opening just beneath my feet.
Joel did not live with us much of the time. Mostly, he lived with his own mother and sister and another half-brother by his step-father. But when he was with us, his persistent resentment toward me for being part of that other family came in the form of punches to the belly and jokes poked at my flabby clumsiness.
So you see, it is quite remarkable that something that I can only call holy infiltrated that drab and messy space with an uncanny joy and an inexplicable peace. On that night, a cluttered, dingy living room was infused with the Kingdom of God.
When I let myself slow down, I still feel that light on my face and see it shimmering between young lovers and old couples, on frazzled parents and squirmy children, around homeless veterans and crabby checkout clerks.
It shines to this day in common, unlikely, and even scandalous places. That’s why I’ve come to believe that the the Christmas light that enthralled me so many years ago was the same light that illuminated the night sky above a scruffy group of shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
And as those shepherds drew near to a stable in a back alley in the shabbiest part of a crummy little town, that same light dusted the dirt floor and the straw and the livestock of a ramshackle manger with that same warm, gentle glow.
In Jesus, God was—God is—infusing the earth with the very light of heaven.
This earth. In all its danger and its comfort, its violence and its tenderness, its chaos and its beauty, its heartbreak and its promise.
This earth. Where wars rage, gangs clash over turf, and children go to bed hungry.
This earth. Where streets are filled with protests and parades. Where old prejudices persist and addicts get sober.
This earth. Where mothers hold new babies, children take their first steps, and families gather to share their deep and ragged love for each other.
The light of heaven that bathed me that night did not flicker and go out. It is neither intermittent nor inconsistent. It is gently persistent, gradually scattering itself into all of earth’s dark corners.
Christ was born in Bethlehem to bring the very light of heaven to earth. Not just once. But once and for all. That light will never be extinguished, because in Jesus its very source—God himself—has come to dwell in our midst.