You don't discuss Alaska for very long before someone asks if you saw the northern lights. Within the first few months of my Jesuit Volunteer year in Sitka, I had my opportunity. The forecast called for a glorious show so my roommates and I clamored onto the roof bundled with sleeping bags, hats, scarves, and mugs of hot chocolate. We were told they would come up over the mountain across from our house so we sat on the roof looking toward the mountains, talked, and waited.
The winter air was cold. It had been dusk for a few hours when we climbed up and soon full darkness was upon us. We were so excited we kept darting our heads around the night sky and asking each other if they saw something we didn't. We were getting antsy with waiting as we fought off sleep. We started making excuses and getting annoyed at the streetlight behind our house that was casting too bright a glare on the sky. Worse still were the lights from the city just on the other side of the mountain. How were we supposed to see the northern lights rise from behind that mountain when the city lights were so brightly shining?!
We struggled to stay awake as we yawned and complained about the missed opportunity and the cold. The buzz of the conversation slowed to a hum as the half-asleep breaks became longer and longer. I remember mumbling something about the stupid city that ruined our chance to see the northern lights when suddenly I looked up into the sky and noticed movement in the dark. I rubbed my eyes and tentatively asked my roommates, "Wait...look up...is that it?" The sky was on fire. It was all white, undulating like the flames of hot coals, dancing across the entire night sky. We all sat up, mouths gaped opened, silent in a pregnant moment of awe.
The city lights behind the mountain that "ruined" our evening were not city lights at all - they were the northern lights rising up into the sky. In fact, there was no city behind that mountain - something we actually knew but managed to forget. We were looking up into the sky for a light we had heard about but not yet seen for ourselves. We didn't know exactly what it would be but were so excited that we let the disappointment of false realities overcome the experience of simply seeing something that was right in front of us.
Reflecting on this experience gave me one more vivid reminder of what Christmas is really about: God's light shining through the darkness. It's about reminding ourselves to stop focusing on the problems that keep us from experiencing the good in our world and reminding ourselves that God's presence is right in front of us, that our hope is not in vain, and that God's grace, strength, and compassion, like the northern lights, will rise up into our darkest nights, and light the sky on fire.
Amanda worked in a domestic violence shelter through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps from 2003-2005. She currently lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and 3 month old son.