It is curious that we begin a new season today, the First Sunday of the Advent season. Outside the walls of this monastery chapel, a new season began just after Halloween, called “Holiday Shopping Season,” along with the Amazon promise that you can have it all now… at least by tomorrow. The season of Advent interposes quite an opposite theme. Anticipating Christmas is not about immediacy. Rather, it is about watching, and waiting, and preparing to celebrate Christ’s infant birth at Bethlehem, and to prepare for Christ’s promise that he will come again in real time. In Advent, you will see no holiday glitter here in this chapel. What catches our eye’s attention is the Advent wreath, front and center, on which we slowly light candles. In the Hebrew scriptures, the promised Messiah teems with the language of light. The Messiah is called “the Dayspring,” “the Morning Star,” “the Sun of Righteousness,” “the Light of the World.”
And don’t we need light, especially as we approach the winter solstice? Meanwhile, there’s more and more darkness outside. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th probably has to do with light. The earliest Christians most likely wanted the date of Christmas to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[i] This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky: December 25th.[ii] And so light has historically figured very importantly into this Advent season preparing for the coming and coming again of Christ: light. Light in the sky and light in our souls.
At Christ’s first coming, we remember that the shepherds and, later, the Magi, found their way to the Christ child by the light of a starry night. In the ensuring years, the Gospel writers would remember Jesus’ saying about himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[iii] The light of life! Each of these next three Advent Sundays we will light yet another candle on our Advent wreath, like a sign of the dawning sun. Advent is a time of preparation to receive anew the light of Christ. We crave the light. Here are some scenes of light, some word pictures of about light:
- In the Genesis creation story, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was everywhere… On the first day, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And it was good. But it was not until the fourth day, in the Genesis creation story, that the sun and moon and stars of the sky were created.[iv] Which is to say God’s light precedes the light of creation. It can make a remarkable difference in your day, in your life, to face God’s light. Not unlike on a sunny day in winter when it feels so good to have the sun shine on your face, simply do that: dare to face God, who knows you, who sees you, and who sees into you, not in a critical light but in an adoring light. In the psalms we find a recurring promise about “the light of God’s countenance” looking upon us tenderly.[v] Let the light of God’s countenance shine onto your face. No need to hide. God knows you, and the only way you will know how much God knows you and loves you is to face God, the source of all light, so that “the eyes of your [own] heart also be enlightened” with God’s adoring love for you.[vi]
- Mirror the light of God’s countenance with your own face into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God. William Blake writes, “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….”Presume that the reason you are yet alive today, and for as much as one more day, is to participate in the life and light and love of God. All of us are living mirrors. Mirror the beams of God’s light, and life, and love. Look upon others and be radiant with God’s love for them. They may otherwise never know – at least not today – how much God loves them. And what a loss it is to go through a day without being reminded how much God loves you. Mirror God’s light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God.
- If the light of God seems occluded from you just now, something has gotten in the way, because God is light. What can block the way of God’s light is our own anger, resentment, revenge, and envy. This will crimp the conduit of God’s light entering your soul, and without that light you will feel lost. Anger, resentment, revenge, and envy block the light and leaves you in the dark, with little-or-no light in your own life, and so little light in your countenance to reflect outward. What opens the conduit of God’s light, and life, and love is thankfulness. Thankfulness is like a router; it’s like angioplasty to the soul. If you are, at this moment, not deeply in touch with gratitude, then you don’t know what you’re missing… but you can find out very quickly. Simply be thankful, now: for your ability to breathe; for colors, and scents, and aromas; for music and harmony and ears to hear it; for the ability to walk; for water and heat; for a bed on which to sleep. Be thankful for those who have stood by you and not forgotten you.On and on you could go. It could be like praying without ceasing, to live that[vii] It would hardly leave room for anything less than the gift of God’s light, and life, and love, a gift for you to open in your own heart. And it could also make a world of difference to others. “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….”
- If you feel robbed of light from the suffering you have known and witnessed in this past year, draw the light from your past. Remember where and how you have discovered the provision of God’s light when all seemed dark and hopeless. Remember. Remember. Remember. This is not unlike remembering how the dawn will come, amazingly, even when you feel in complete darkness in the moment. Remembering how light has come out of darkness in the past in your own life will help you claim hope for the future. The dawn will come again.
- If the light in your soul seems eclipsed just now, be still. Practice stillness. The psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.”[viii] We are pushed to live life at a very fast pace which can leave life in a blur. It’s not unlike the water in a fast-moving creek, where all the mud is stirred up. Practice silence and stillness in the cadence of your day. The mud will settle, and you will find increasing clarity how the light, and life, and love of God’s presence and God’s provision is with you. Be still and you will know.
- One last word about light in darkness, drawing on the insight of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic. John of the Cross speaks of what he calls “the dark night of the senses,” when our normal spiritual consolations – good feelings, insights, even hope – seem to have disappeared. John of the Cross says that those moments are like standing in a dark room. We become accustomed to the dark and we can make out the vague shapes of a table here, a chair there. But if someone suddenly appears with a bright light, we are blinded; we experience a kind of darkness even though the room is flooded in light. Likewise, when we feel complete darkness in prayer, it may be because God’s light is so close that it blinds us, and all we can “see” is our own darkness.[ix]If you now are experiencing inner darkness, you are not alone in the dark. The psalms give us such a very comforting picture of God: “Darkness is not dark to you [O God]; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”[x] God is not in the dark. God is with you in the dark, and you will see.
As we anticipate Christmas this year, if you are asking, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, I suggest you rephrase the question. The question is not whether God is with you, but how God is with you. Because God Emmanuel iswith you, and with the rest of us, whether we here, or those near, or those far away, all around this world. Whether the landscape of your soul is brightly illuminated just now, or whether you are temporarily blinded by more light than you can bear, or whether the darkness simply seems to loom large, God is with you.
The season of Advent is a time of preparation and waiting for us to receive anew God Emmanuel, God with us, which we celebrate at Christmas. Meanwhile, in Advent, are we waiting on God? Or is God waiting on us? The answer is “yes.”[xi] In the fullness of time, the dawning of Christ’s light, and life, and love will come to us again and anew.[xii]
[i] The Roman Empire’s “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”: Natalis Solis Invicti.
[ii] Hebrews 1:3.
[iii] John 8:12.
[iv] Genesis 1:1-19.
[v] Psalms 4:6; 42:7, 15; 43:6; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3, 7, 15, 18; 90:8; 119:135.
[vi] Ephesians 3:14-21.
[vii] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
[viii] Psalm 46:10.
[ix] The Dark Night, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, rev. ed., trans Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD (ICS Publications, 1991); from bk. 1, ch. 8, #1, p. 375.
[x] Psalm 139:12.
[xi] 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you….”
[xii] “In the fullness of time,” a riff on St. Paul’s writing in Galatians 4:4-5: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
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