Lighting the darkness

advent candlesThis is the first week of Advent, a time of spiritual darkness as we await the coming of the One who will set our hearts alight from within with his love.

This is a hard time of year for many. Old grief resurfaces, broken relationships break us open, and the increasing darkness as we move closer to the winter solstice feels heavy, tinged with an unnamable fear. No wonder we distract ourselves with holiday shopping, decorating, parties and sweet treats! On one hand, there’s not enough time to get it all done before Christmas, but on the other hand, the Earth’s turning feels excruciatingly slack. Instinctively, we keep turning toward a light we wonder if we may never see again.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

    and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is as bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.  (Psalm 139: 11-12)

Advent is the promise that in the midst of the pain, struggles and trials of our human life, we can know the peace, love and joy that our Savior brings. Advent is the promise that our inner darkness will be dispelled so that we can fully experience all that has been promised about God’s kingdom, where the limited duality of our human understanding becomes something far grander and transformational.

I grew up in an interfaith home. Even as we prepared the house for Christmas with decorations and counted down the days on an Advent calendar, we shifted gears for 8 days to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. No matter what else was going on, at sundown we stopped everything so that my grandfather or father could recite the prayers and light the candles on the menorah. As darkness fell each night, the miracle of light and God’s mercy was solemnly re-enacted. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood just how comforting that ritual was for me. If you’ve ever experienced a dark night of the soul, you know the holy relief and saving grace of that first glimpse of light when all seemed done and gone.

The menorah candles were like that for me. 8 days of: it isn’t over, it will not always be this dark, the spring will come again and the leaves will unfurl on the barren brown branches. I often feel the same sense of relief the first time I light the Christmas tree. I resist the urge to drape everything in my home under strands of colored bulbs. It’s often so dark on our street that I can’t see my hand in front of my face, but my neighbors’ holiday lights steady and reorient me in the vertiginous dark.

It’s part of the divine order of things that we need the darkness in order to come full circle to the light. We usually take the sun for granted, but the shadows created by its absence remind us of just how dependent we are on its life-sustaining light and warmth. And so it is with Advent – a time pregnant with fear, expectation and outrageous hope.

Like Mary, we wait. We wait, hoping that the archangel who snuck in at night, most likely scaring the wits out of that poor girl, was right about everything. Because we need that divine light and love more than anything. And each year, we revisit that hope, even when the world with its brokenness, miseries and distractions might convince us to do otherwise. We light the Advent candles, breathe a sigh of relief – and for a brief moment, darkness becomes as light to us until the light of the world returns once again.

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