This time of the year is the darkest time of the year. It is just after the darkest night of the year, the winter solstice at the end of December that the church celebrates the birth of Jesus, the dawning of the Christ upon the world. This month leading up to Christmas, as the nights get longer, this is the time in the church when we prepare our hearts for the dawning of the Christ. We sit vigil – wait and watch.
The season of Advent, is traditionally a time of fasting and a time of almsgiving, charity. It’s about focusing our attention on what is most important and letting go of the rest. We light candles during Advent each week. This shows the clarity of our focus. That clear bright candlelight in the darkness focusing our attention on our hope and our knowledge of Emmanuel– “God-with-us” who dawns among us in Christ.
This focus can take discipline.
The way Christmas is in our consumer culture, this month can be so hyped-up and stressed-out and all about superficial things, shiny, glitzy, chasing after the images of things. So, it can take some discipline to not get caught up in all that, and to keep our focus on the deeper spiritual meaning of this time.
Keep it simple. Keep it real.
But it can be hard to keep it real because for a lot of people this can be a difficult season. For a lot of people this is a genuinely joyous season – and the Hope, Peace, Joy, Love themes of Advent honors the genuine happiness and wellbeing. But I want to honor as well tht this can also be a be a challenging for folks. (I do kind of wonder if the manic consumerism is just an attempt to distract ourselves from the shadow side of this time.)
It is literally darker these days heading into the Winter Solstice. This can mean depressed moods. This holiday time can be difficult and complicated especially for those who are grieving. Or for those who have fractures in their families.
And all the talk about Hope and Peace and Joy and Love in this season can cause us to feel our distance from that. Depending on where you are, if we bring up Hope it makes us think about despair; talk about Peace, we think about the violence in the world, in ourselves; Joy may lead us to the shadow of Sadness, Love to the shadow of bitterness, hate, or loneliness.
This can lead us to feel more fully the ways that our world is far from living out the promise of the Realm of God.
AS WELL as it is an opportunity to lift up and hold onto the ways that we are fulfilling the Way of Jesus.
The deeper meaning of Advent in the Christian tradition is about these tensions. It really honors the darkness, as we focus on the candles lit within it.
Advent is not about running from the darkness, but rather about staying awake within it.
in the darkness,
awake and focused on the candle that has been lit within it.
Advent is about vigilance within the darkness as we await the dawning of the Christ.
“The people who have dwelled in darkness have seen a great light… for unto us a child is born.” We often hear this on Christmas this passage from the Prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah and the other prophets are very honest about feelings of God’s absence. The ancient Jewish wisdom is, when we’re in one of these dark places when we’re feeling that absence, to hold on to our yearning for God and to say awake with the faith that God will draw near.
And in Christian teaching about the spiritual life, there is this idea of “the dark night of the soul.” That’s from St. John of the Cross. If we are committed to our faith, committed to living out our baptism and following as we can this Way of Jesus and deepening in intimacy with God, it is inevitable that we will pass through periods when feel God’s absence, periods when we must face the shadows of our lives.
When this happens, it is important to stay awake, with love and trust.
“Learn to be at home in this darkness,” this is the guidance of a well-known manual on prayer called “The Cloud of Unknowing.” We don’t know who wrote it, it’s by an anonymous 14th Century English Monk.
“Learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to God whom you love. … If you strive to fix your love on God, forgetting all else… I am confident that God in God’s goodness will bring you a deep experience of Godself.” (from “The Cloud of Unknowing” by an anonymous 14th century English monk).
Advent is a time to fix our love on God in this way, and abide together in the darkness, sitting vigil by the candlelight, which week by week steadily increases.
Let me close by praying, with the prayer with which we opened this service:
“Spirit of the Living God, stir us awake to your presence.
May our minds still. May our hearts settle.
May we unburden our conscience and allow our souls to rest in you, O God.
As we await the coming of Emmanuel, we may find we wait in darkness.
Give us the strength to stay awake in this darkness, through this time of Advent,
As we set watch by the light of our yearning, the light of our faith in You.
In Your many holy names we pray, Amen.