Perhaps it’s because Nebraska has had several snowy, wintry days already this year, or perhaps it’s because of the weight of the news about climate change. Perhaps it’s because the level of corruption, incompetence, and willful ignorance among some of our top elected officials is taking us farther from addressing global warming instead of bringing us closer to the sort of large-scale all-in effort needed to mitigate climate change and adapt to a warming world. Perhaps it’s that the scientific reports seem less abstract when we see photos of places destroyed by fires, floods, and sea level rise. Whatever the reason, as this Advent season begins, I feel more keenly than I ever have at Advent that we are journeying into darkness.
We pray “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” in our Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, and we use phrases like “dark times” to describe a difficult point of our personal or collective history. But non-metaphorical darkness, real darkness, can be a welcome time of sleep. It’s when we dream and re-energize our bodies for another day. Clear, starry skies on the darkest and coldest nights pull us into a world of wonder. Darkness is neither bad nor good, it simply is.
However, when we aren’t safely tucked away in our beds or purposely star-gazing, darkness can be scary because we can’t see what is around us and may be disoriented. That’s when we long for a light in the darkness. A small flashlight on a walk back from star-gazing in an open field or seeing a farmstead’s yard light ahead when driving on a dark night can make a big difference.
As we enter Advent this year, I’m keeping an image in mind of entering a quiet, restful darkness while knowing where to find some light when I need it. Maybe in the darkness, even if it's sometimes uncomfortable, we will learn something, dream something, that will help us see and participate in a new thing. In Advent, we contemplate the mystery of Christ as the one who was, who is, and who is to come again, the one that John’s Gospel describes as the Word who was from the beginning. “What has come into being in him was life,” writes John, “and the life was the light of all people.” We know where to find the light, and we also know that it’s both a necessity and a joy to pass through the darkness of Advent in order to more fully receive the light that always shines in the darkness, the light of Christ we celebrate at Christmas.
This year, our spiritual journey into darkness seems an especially good fit for what we are experiencing in our daily lives, in this unique moment in the intertwined history of humankind and planet Earth, and in our current political situation. In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus talks about our ability to see the signs of the season such as the sprouting of green leaves telling us when summer is near. We can read the signs of our times if we pay attention. Reports of daily eco-disasters and scientific reports show us different kinds of signs of the same reality. As we pay attention, the darkness can seem overwhelming. It’s disorienting because we are in an unfamiliar place. However, as we allow ourselves to see the signs and enter the darkness of our current situation, we are also entering the more familiar darkness of Advent, that darkness that is meant to help us see the Light more clearly. Even though humankind has never before been in this same place, we know how to do this because we know how to journey through Advent and we know the Light is near.
For a daily dose of wonder to help us reflect on our place in the vastness of creation, check out the 2018 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar.