Advent devotionals often have felt ho-hum to me: Wait patiently until Christmas, the main event. In The Holy in the Night: Finding Freedom in a Season of Waiting, Shannon W. Dycus delivers something far better than merely waiting. She finds holiness in darkness and treats night on its own terms.
Dycus, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Eastern Mennonite University and a former copastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, follows a different road map than most Advent devotionals. Instead of four weeks of reflections leading up to Christmas Day, she keeps on going through the 12 days of Christmas to Epiphany, Jan. 6, for a total of 36 days spanning six weeks.
Threading through the journey are themes from the lyrics of “O Holy Night,” lectionary readings from the Old and New Testaments and writings from Black and brown modern-day prophets.
Dycus’ reflections cut like a laser of grace through the fog of depression that can descend upon one’s soul during a commercially driven happiness-fest in a world that is not so happy.
Week Three’s introduction sets the stage for embracing the not-happy as part of the narrative of a baby born in a cow’s stall. Dycus writes: “The second line of ‘O Holy Night’ offers the central and obvious truth of this Christmas song. ‘It is the night of our dear savior’s birth’ names realities of the event and its location rather matter-of-factly. The truth of the night and the birth holds the vulnerability of life. . . .
“Advent asks us to slow down and be attentive to what is most true in our spirits and in those we share communities with. Only from this place of dwelling do we know what we need in the coming of God so that we can be attuned to it as it appears. ‘It is the night’ nudges us to an honesty where we are, dwelling in what is true — whatever that may be.”
Dycus tackles the complications of holiday happiness on Day 17, titled “I Am Free in Complicated Feelings.” She reflects on Psalm 146: “The Psalmist connects this form of happy with those whose help or hope is in God, not simply the tangible forms of happy we can point to right now.
“Verse 5 names ‘Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.’ The scope of God is defined by the realm of things within heaven and earth, the sea and forever. Happy, for the psalmist, is expansive and distant, in places beyond our reach. . . . Happy here is not quite present or proximate — it is held in the not yet. This is a long-term happy, dependent on the vast help and hope within God’s realm.”
THe imperative to rejoice ripples off the theme of happiness. Dycus combines deft realism with the hope of a God who roots us despite the tremors of life. On Day 21, (part of Week Four, “In Sin and Error -Pining”), she confesses that 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 — “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” — stresses her out.
“I find this passage overwhelming and unrealistic,” she writes. “. . . Rejoicing, prayer and thanks don’t match every facet of my relationship with God. . . . I give myself permission to feel anger and disappointment in my delayed expectations.”
She suggests: “Instead of the heavy lift of this passage, I wonder if we can hold this invitation: Do what you can to stay in conversation with God. Do it as much as you can, with honest intention from your spirit. Know that God will always meet you there.”
Each devotional opens with listening to Scripture or other readings and ends with a prayer. A small-group study guide is a bonus.
No point on the journey feels in-authentic or skimmed over, glibly skipping the miles to the destination. Dycus is unafraid to trudge through the muck and marginalization on the way to promises fulfilled.
What endears this book to me — and why it would be a good Christmas gift for those who are cynical about a Hallmark spin on the season — is Dycus’ knack for holding worldly realism and holy hope in a healthy tension. She guides us safely to our destination, “A New and Glorious Morn,” infusing each mile of the journey with the strength and courage to reach it.
Laurie Oswald Robinson of Newton, Kan., is a longtime writer for Mennonite publications and agencies. She is a freelance writer and founder of Tales of the Times, helping individuals and families write their memoirs.