Holy Light in the Holy Darkness: Advent and Waiting For New Life
As we move closer and closer to the Winter Solstice—the shortest, darkest day of the year—it seems worthwhile to take some time to reflect on what this season of darkness has to teach us. In the Christian tradition, this season is known as Advent. Advent comes near the end of the calendar year, but it also marks the beginning of the new church year. It intentionally pairs what’s happening outside with what’s happening inside each of us.
Metaphorically speaking, Advent is a season for us to intentionally live in darkness for a while, because not only is doing so beneficial on its own, but also because we might become aware of the light—however small and far away it may seem. It’s a season of waiting for the arrival of new life. In fact, the word “advent” comes from the Latin word meaning “coming.”
In the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Exile serves as a helpful parallel. During the Exile, the people of Israel are forced by the conquering Babylonians to live in Babylon, which is miles and miles away from home. The people of Israel are convinced that their mistakes, their sins, were the reason this awful thing had happened to them.
It’s during this moment in time—when the people of Israel feel exceedingly lost, afraid, and abandoned by God—that the prophet Isaiah shares a promise of hope. Specifically, Isaiah promises them a Suffering Servant. Isaiah’s voice becomes the voice of God as he speaks to the people of Israel:
Isaiah assures his people that justice, goodness, and righteousness are coming. His promise is the promise of the Christ—the everlasting Divine Presence that will, for a moment in time, become embodied so that the people will better understand God’s love and grace and compassion. So that we might learn how to embody God’s love and grace and compassion, too.
The promise of the Christ is what we’re encouraged to remember during Advent. Whenever we’re going through something difficult. Whenever we’re hurting, Whenever we’re lonely. Whenever we’ve lost something important to us. It’s in this holy darkness that something new can be brought to life. For this reason, during Advent we’re actually encouraged to live in holy darkness for a little while. We’re encouraged to be fully present in and to this holy darkness.
This is hard for me. I’m the kind of person who’s really good at pretending everything is going swimmingly when things are not going swimmingly. I’m bad at realizing when I’m struggling with something, often because I can’t even admit to myself that the struggle is real and/or that I need to address it.
But there’s certainly something powerful, and potentially transformative, about intentionally dwelling in holy darkness—about letting ourselves sit in darkness, uncertainty, and discomfort for a while. The more I do it, the better able I am to understand my feelings, and more importantly, who I really am underneath those feelings. I start to see my inner light, and upon reflection, I realize that the darkness is actually what allowed me to see the light.
In her book Night Visions, author Jan L. Richardson describes the season of Advent as a different way of seeing:
“We require darkness for birth and growth: the seed in the ground, the seed in the womb, the seed in our souls. In the dark lie possibilities for intimacy, for rest, for healing . . . In these Advent days of darkness and waiting, it may indeed seem that God's face is hidden from our sight. But the sacred presence is there, breathing in the shadows. This is when we learn to trust senses other than sight. This is when we learn to seek the face of God beneath our fingertips.”
So, during this season, when we light candles on the Advent wreath, or when we drive at night and see all the houses carefully strung with lights, we can think of these lights in the darkness as beautiful visual reminders of the presence of God. We are reminded to be hopeful and wait in the darkness—this time is holy, too. Because when we let ourselves dwell in the holy darkness, the holy light inevitably becomes visible. In a mysterious way, we can see that new life is stirring within us. No matter who we are or what mistakes we’ve made, God is with us, and there’s the promise a new beginning.