We begin our Advent journey in darkness. We are in the season of the shortest days of the year, the days when we are farthest from the sun. Darkness abounds. Yet all around us, displays and commercials create a sense of urgency, communicating that the darkness is something to be banished, the waiting something to be rushed through. What if we did not rush?
Advent can be a bit like opening a door into a familiar, but darkened, room. Part of us thinks we know what to expect, but part of us still hesitates for fear of the unknown. In the dark, we cannot always tell what is waiting for us. What might the darkness hold?
There will be signs, and distress, and foreboding; “Now when these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The redemption we seek, the redemption that Jesus promises, comes into full flower in the light – but it finds its roots and begins the slow climb upward in the dark.
Still it is difficult to wait in the dark, even for the promised redemption. Darkness holds so many potential threats, so much of the unknown, that civilizations through the centuries have chosen to mark this time of year with festivals that bring light and warmth into our lives. The church is no different. It is not by chance that we have fixed midwinter as a time that we seek to bring light into darkness. In a time and in a world in which tragedy and disaster seem to surround us we might well feel that we are stumbling through the dark. In the dark, where the powerful exploit the weak and the wealthy oppress the poor, where is God? In our own lives, when we find ourselves haunted by demons of loneliness, anger, and despair, where in our emotional darkness is God?
Scripture reminds us repeatedly that God is most often found in the dark. In the beginning, God said: Let there be light, and there was light. When God spoke, where was God? In the darkness. Moses went up into the darkness that covered Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. And where was God? In the midst of the darkness. On Easter morning, when it was still dark, Jesus rose from the tomb. Where was God? In the darkness.
In a time of deep darkness, while God’s presence enables us to quietly set down roots, we continue to look for the light. That is the hope, that is the promise, of Advent. In the darkness, confident that God is present with us even as we wait for the Incarnation, we lift up our heads and look around us, as Jesus urges us to do. We recognize, we know, that we are not alone, and that moves us gives us the courage to see others differently.
In his classic tale A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens puts the sentiment into words spoken by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who says: “I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grace, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and it will do me good, and so I say, God bless it.” There is the light. There is the hope of Advent. There is the promise.
The reading for today seems bleak indeed if all we can hear is the darkness: signs and distress, confusion and fainting. But Scripture reminds us, again and again, that even in the darkness we can embrace God’s presence. And what happens when we do? What happens when we recall that God is with us in the darkness? We might find, as does Scrooge’s nephew, that God walking with us in the darkness moves us to look with love on those around us.
We might be reminded by the many instances of God dwelling in the darkness that it is in the dark, below the surface, beyond the reach of our own efforts, that new life comes forth. Birth and growth and what happens next – all begin in the dark. God comes to Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and Mary in the darkness of their dreams and reveals the Divine self and purposes. Samuel’s call from God comes during the night.
The darkness is calling for our attention. Perhaps we should not be so quick to banish it with our colored lights. In the Advent journey from darkness toward light, we might want to remember that in the dark, in God’s presence in quiet and stillness, free from distraction, is often where the growth that we need takes place.
I invite you during this Advent season to spend some time with darkness, even if it scares you a little. When the sun goes down, don’t immediately turn on the lights. Don’t turn on the television. Put away your glowing cell phone. Sit in the darkness for a while. Listen to what darkness is saying to you. If fear comes, listen to it. If sadness comes, attend to it. If boredom comes, let your mind wander and whisper. If you awaken in the middle of the night with insomnia, let the darkness lead you to prayer, to communion with God, to the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary in the night. Let the darkness lead you to the mystery of Jesus who comes to us in the evening, at midnight, at the darkest moment before dawn.
And in the dark, remember this: God is present in the darkness. And in that truth, there is light, and in the light, there is hope.