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Phantoms and Firelight

Why do we love a ghost story at Christmas? How does the ghost story speak to the eternity in our hearts? Out on the Mira, perhaps, around a bonfire, there we expect the “witches and werewolves and Oak Island gold.” But why now, as we celebrate starlight and the birth of a baby?

Stand on the seashore in the evening, just beyond the high-water mark, if you can see it. Choose a lonely stretch, away from the boardwalk lights, if you can. Stand and listen. I can watch and listen at a shoreline all day long and feel the swells, calm in my chest. But at night, when you can hear the crashing and feel the spray, hear and feel but not see, this is the thrill of the ghost story.

This is a different fear from the one I feel if I happen to be swimming near a shark. That fear is concrete, acute. But in the dark, by a mighty ocean, there is a fear of we know not what. And it is this sense of a mysterious greatness, untamed and beautiful both, that we call awe.

It is numinous.

It is the rapture of gazing up at a waterfall, but even more, the thrill of looking down from its heights.
It is how our souls prompt us to know more than we can measure.

David Snokes suggests that this was the backdrop of Eden: the fruit laden branches, yes, but wafting over the walls, the pounding paw-beats of a lion on the hunt, the shudder of tectonic movements. Behind the verdant lushness, a murmur that gave meaning to the warning, “You shall surely die.” Of such dreadful wonders, Snokes writes, “There are millions of stars and planets that will be born and die in explosions so far away from us that we will never know of them, and there are wars fought by insects and microbes so small that we cannot see them.”

“May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke!” Psalm 104:31-32

This God, who plants gardens amidst perils, who boasts of the goodness of his wilds in my favorite passage, Job 38, answers our taste for mystery. As an ontological argument, this God, unlike the sanitized Sunday school version, explains our longings.

What God had I known before? Before Psalm 104 and Job 38, my God must have been as a crescent moon, his visible facets fractional. They still are. Too much would crush and swallow me. But perhaps the crescent can wax a bit.

C.S. Lewis has said of awe, “Just as no enumeration of the physical qualities of a beautiful object could ever include its beauty, or give the faintest hint of what we mean by beauty to a creature without aesthetic experience, so no factual description of any human environment could include the uncanny and the Numinous or even hint at them.”

Perhaps this is why we delight in the mystery that fills the contours of the Nativity scene. And mystery abounds! To Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, to common laborers in the field, and to sages in their towers, come lights and songs and visions to rend the air. Their hearts tremble and thrill. I stand by the shore under a black sky, disturbed by no multitudes, and I am glad that I can’t quite imagine it. I want things that hover outside the bounds of my imagination.

In college, I developed a Theory of Intense Grape Flavor. If you eat a grape Now & Later candy, the theory goes, you may become aware that there is a perfect saturation of flavor that you can’t quite get to, no matter how hard you chew. You can’t reach Grape Flavor Nirvana. Relating this to a friend over Chinese takeout all those years ago, I realized, as you already have, that C.S. Lewis and Plato and myriad others had had this thought, much better, before me.

Still we seek, if not for flavors, for the source of the shadows, the flash of something just out of sight. We follow stars. Without a map, we will still grope for the numinous. We will dabble in astrology and watch for paranormal activity and court old philosophies in new dresses. Or we will stumble as we gaze at the mountain and fall on our faces before cold stone. We will have God or we will have idols. We must have eternity in this weary world.

And we will have the ghosts of Christmases past and future, the rattling of their chains as hypnotic as firelight. They call us to remember and they call us to wonder. The night trembles. Darkness is over the surface of the deep. Against a dread backdrop, soft light flickers warm in a stable. A strange story, and to longing hearts, a thrill of hope.

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