Lessons from a Christmas Cactus


Don't you think it's odd that Christmas-the time of the year we celebrate the Christ child, the light of the world-is also the darkest time of the year? At least here in the Northern Hemisphere, you get up in the morning ... and it's dark. You leave work, and it's dark. Somewhere in the middle, it gets light, but you don't remember it 'cause you are too busy complaining about how dark it is all the time. 

As mere human beings, it is hard to wait for the light of the world during the darkest time of the world. However, if we were, say, a Christmas cactus, it would be easy. My grandmother, who lived in the North Carolina mountains had these huge hanging baskets of Christmas cactuses that were just loaded with red blooms. We couldn't figure out how she did it, until one day she shared her trick. She put them in the cold, dark root cellar. In short, the plants use the darkness to bloom.

Maybe this Advent season, we should take a lesson from the Christmas cactus, for life can be found in the darkest times. In fact, that is when life explodes forth.

This may sound counterintuitive to some because we tend to equate darkness with evil, with bad things. And this is a belief we have to stop.

We have to be careful about the language we use. What we say over time affects what we think and do. If, for example, we consistently think or speak of darkness as evil or bad, how can we help from translating that to race? Or racism? These days, we cannot afford anything that separates us, anything that undermines love, anything that weakens our fight for racial justice. As Nelson Mandela said, "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."  

There are infinite examples of the goodness and beauty of darkness. The sheen of a raven's wing in the noonday sun, the deep, dark haze of the Blue Ridge mountains, or most obvious ... chocolate.

Darkness is also a source of life itself. Look at Genesis 1: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth-the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and a wind from God was sweeping over the water. God then said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light..." Darkness was God's first creation and it is a life-giving gift. Night is the time all life sleeps and rejuvenates. Human life begins in the darkness of the womb. Seeds germinate in the deep darkness of the earth. And the darker the soil, the richer the crop.

Darkness is where life forms. It is a birthing place for hopes and dreams. Like the Christmas cactus that needs to enter a stage of dormancy in the darkness to bloom, we too need the darkness to thrive and to flower. So this Advent season, let us ask ourselves: what beautiful new thing do we want to birth?

The great actress Lana Turner once said to Frank Sinatra, "There's something so enchanting about twilight." How true. There is something enchanting, and magical and healing about the darkness of this season. This week, when you get up in the dark and go to bed in the dark and wonder when, if ever, the light will come, remember that life itself springs from darkness. Remember that it was in the middle of the night, in the darkest time of the year that the Christ child was born unto us.

This blog was also given as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC.