Let Us Be in the Darkness: On Advent

Everything is dark, and in the darkness there is cold. If anyone is near you, you can’t see them. At the edge of the dark there is not a wall or a visible horizon; there is no door you can discern that might open and let you out or even pour light in, and if there were, you do not know where you might face to watch it, what direction you might go in to approach it and not go further from it, deeper into the thick, obscuring darkness. This is a very real experience in seasons of life, sometimes very long and apparently endless seasons. And it’s OK to experience it, to be in that darkness, to feel the breath of despair, to not know. Gød knows that it’s OK. At least, the Church believes this, or, at least, we indicate that we do by building into our peculiar way of marking time, by building into our own particular calendar, a season dedicated to acknowledging the presence of darkness in our lives and the perennial difficulty of hope. It is Advent.

As I write this, I’m late in beginning to discuss Advent, because we are now approaching its conclusion: Christmas, the moment that represents a consolation of part of the hopes represented in the weeks of Advent and the year-round hopes we compress into high-potency during Advent. Yet sometimes the experience of Advent is so present and immersive—and this year perhaps it is so—that I can only write about it as from the beginning when I am closer to its illuminated end. The darkness that Advent represents, names and—at least in the northern hemisphere—occurs within, exactly and paradoxically makes it hard to see how the darkness that tempts us to despair is also the site in which our despair is transformed into a hope we cannot ourselves produce now, here. And, like the northern hemisphere nearing the winter solstice, that astronomical turning point when the night is longest and our days begin to get longer again, our nearness to the glow of Christmastide doesn’t abate the blackness of Advent. The longer we are in it—the deeper into it we are taken—the harder it can be to believe that a light is coming, that our time of darkness could really be transformed into a season of hope.

As best as I can understand it, Advent works by giving darkness place. By acknowledging its presence, Advent sets its limits. Advent doesn’t deny that there is cause for despair because there is a thing to be hoped for.  It doesn’t deny that there is unknowing because there is something to have faith in. It doesn’t deny that there is pain because there is reason to rejoice. That is, it doesn’t suppose that because light is real and because it shines in many places, darkness is not anywhere. But if light does not negate darkness (so Advent concedes, but be careful because here comes the trick), darkness does not negate light. And, just to be fair, if there is light outside of this darkness—let’s say, on its other, unimagined side—let us name that too; let us acknowledge too other real things, things we may have known or believed in when once we lived in sunlight, that are absolutely absent to our present experience now. That may be enough, then, and just enough, for us to light a few candles to mark these absent things: love, joy, hope, peace. In the Church, we light one candle each week (would that we had the strength to light two!), and we make present what is not present to us in the darkness.

Yet these are candles, friends. They are not bonfires. The flames are puny, flickering and sometimes faint. We have as much power to stubbornly, bitterly blow them out as we had to choose, reluctantly or uncertainly, to light them in the first place. Their illuminated wick pierces the darkness like a needle, not cuts it like a sword; the darkness is perhaps blacker for their contrast against them, just as the their little glow is more stark and real for the void otherwise engulfing them.

None of this Advent business, or the experience that it gives liturgical representation for, is easy. Candles do go out; their wick burns down. This is part of the paradox. If the anticipation it audaciously lends to despair could be sustained endlessly, could it be meaningful? What need of hope, love, joy, peace if we could endure waiting for them forever? Because these cost everything for the weary soul to hold, to look on as someone else holds them for you, lights the candles with a faith unavailable or even lost to you here, we have skin in the game; the unreal and absent is made real and present. Hope is not just a word in that place or darkened waiting; it is the pain that I feel in imagining being happy again and confronting the space in between. Love, the burning away of my defenses, the sense of total exposure, the shameless aching of loss. It would be as cheap to import these ideas into desolation as to say, “hold onto hope,” or, “rejoice,”; instead, they are smuggled in as borrowed gifts, difficult gifts to be unpacked, that disrupt the comforting blanket of despair and cause us to look with difficulty outward to things we cannot see and cannot imagine because, however hard it is, we are compelled from within ourselves to anticipate an end to the darkness that will come certainly and out of nowhere.

In the Church calendar, the consoling conclusion of Advent is scheduled. If done right, it is marked and dramatic, in some traditions even uproarious. In our lived experience, it is not. Soon Churches will begin celebrating the birth and life of Jesus and not long after begin preparing for Easter (sort of another advent-y kind of thing; we’re always wrapped up in one form of expectation or another, for good reason); the days for the northern hemisphere will be getting longer and lighter; but for many of us our experience of unseeing, of lonesomeness, of struggling for glimpses of something beyond despair, will continue into the endless days of summer or past them. That does not mean that Advent is not for you or that you are out-of-sync, not feeling what you should be feeling or experiencing what you should be experiencing. In that time as this one, the divine stamp of approval over the Advent experience is most valuable and valid. Here, right now, together, we agree that while the darkness is not OK, it is OK to be in darkness. It has an end. It will have an end, and while we cannot bring it about, it will come. That is Gød’s promise, and our promise, and clear through every solstice or equinox, over all of Gød’s time, we confess that together; we hope for each other; we sit with you (and me) in borrowed anticipation for everything to be made well.

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