Zach helped me light the first candle of Advent on Sunday. The Advent Wreath is a tradition created by a German pastor in the 19th century as a way to teach kids about the coming of Christ. Candles are lit on the Sundays of Advent; three are purple for penitence, a fourth is pink for joy, and the final white light is the Christ Candle.
We flicked off the fluorescent lamp in our living room and let the darkness sink in. As I explained the practice to my wiggly five-year-old, I was struck by the contrast of light and dark during the Advent season in particular.
In our era of artificial street lamps, incandescent light available at the click of a switch, and glowing blue and red dots blinking from every appliance, we forget just how dark winter is, when the sun seems so pale and far away and the nights are long.
Our ancestors knew this darkness intimately. In December after sunset, they locked the doors, shuttered the windows, and tucked in early. There was no reason for honest folk to be abroad at night. Their folktales warned them that as Christmas drew near the spirits of darkness began to range more actively, furious at the approach of the Christ Child. Witches, werewolves, and evil forces are abroad in the night seeking to harm humans, steal children, and destroy their livestock. Ritual steps were taken to keep witches from coming down the chimney or to keep monsters out of the home. In Scandinavia, families often slept together for protection on Christmas Eve, the peak of evil’s power.
Darkness seems to always carry a bad reputation. Whether literally or metaphorically, it represents the unknown. The scary. The avoid-at-all-costs.
But perhaps there are things we can’t learn under blazing artificial light that we can only learn in the dark. It takes being outside at night to squint for the stars. Or flipping off the light so my favorite five-year-old can watch candlelight dance. (He did seem terrifying enamored by the flame.)
My friend Barbara Brown Taylor and I sat down for a conversation on this very topic. What does it look like to practice courage in the midst of darkness? I learned so much from her. I think you will, too. Click here to listen.*
The thing is that darkness will never take us by surprise. We know that we are born into a broken world, that violence and sin are daily constants in life on planet Earth, and that it took a hideous death of an innocent man to free us. We also know that there is an inexhaustible source of brightness and warmth in the person of Jesus who first appeared to us as a baby in a manger two thousand years ago. That is why light is so much a part of the Advent season.
When the early church chose December 25 as the date to celebrate the Nativity, they must have been aware of the powerful symbolism of midwinter, when the seasons turn, when darkness begins, at last, to diminish. In one of the early medieval antiphons sung on the seven evenings before Christmas Eve, Jesus is hailed as “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitia” – “O, dawn of the east, splendor of light eternal, sun of justice.” We still sing in our carol:
O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here,
And drive away the shades of night
And pierce the clouds and bring us light
The arrival of Jesus was preceded by a light in the heavens that guided the Magi, and was hailed by an old wise man in the Temple as the appearance of “a light unto the Gentiles.” Christ became our light in the darkness of this world.
So Happy Advent, my dears. May we all experience a little courage in the dark, short days of winter—knowing that this is the season when the brightest light of all breaks forth.
And may this season also prepare us for the coming of Jesus in his glory, a second appearance of blazing light that will take us all home, where our tears will all be wiped away, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.
Goodbye darkness. Hello light.