That’s where we’re headed in Advent, these words from Isaiah that we’ll read on Christmas Eve. Advent is a journey set in the darkest weeks of the year, as the days grow shorter and shorter. Even after the solstice, a few days before Christmas, we don’t yet see enough lengthening in daylight to hope for the end of the winter and the light to be restored.
This time of year, when the temperature allows for being outdoors (by being within a few degrees of freezing), my morning walks take place in the dark. There’s just a bit of a reprieve around the time change, but week or two after the switch back to Daylight Wasting Time, I’m back in the dark on my morning walks.
This walking in the dark has prompted me to consider what is useful in terms of light … and what is not.
Most useful is a full (or nearly full) moon in a cloudless sky. It isn’t as bright as day, but the soft light is enough to see the path, to see familiar landmarks, and (likely) to be seen by others. Unfortunately, this phase of the moon lasts for just a few days and the sky must be cloudless, which is a rare thing in Minnesota. A cloudless sky in winter typically means the temperature is so far below freezing that every drop of moisture has frozen out of the atmosphere … which also means I am NOT walking outside.
The streetlights generally help. For aesthetic considerations and a quieter neighborhood, the overall light level is low. But the lights are directed down to the streets and walkways and the lights are close enough to see where you’re going (in most places). However, it isn’t enough light that a pedestrian can be sure that drivers have a good chance of seeing her. In some places, the walkway curves away from the road and drops below grade. For that part of the path, the streetlights up by the road don’t provide enough light to see where the path goes. Along the one major road through the neighborhood, the streetlights are on one side of the street and the sidewalk is on the other. The lights along that area help the drivers – not the pedestrians.
What does not help at all is the glare from headlights of approaching cars. Much like the streetlights, the headlights are designed and positioned in such a way as to best assist the driver behind the wheel – not those outside of the car. Rather than illuminate the area in front of me, the glare of on-coming headlights floods the area with so much light, it washes out nearly everything between the light source and me. It’s kind of like the inverse of “all dark” blind, but it’s a form of blindness just the same.
For times like these, when the on-coming glare of headlights is too much or when the streetlights are insufficient for my needs, I’m really glad to have my flashlight. In many ways, my flashlight is the most useful light of all. I can turn it on when I need the light and point it where I need the light to be. I can have a focused, bright light if I need that, or a softer, more widespread light. The flashlight also has a strobe feature, which is helpful when I need to cross streets as it is much more able to catch the attention of drivers than I am. Drivers who don’t normally yield to pedestrians do when the strobe light is flashing.
It’s hard to walk in the dark … where does my next step land? … what might be in the way to trip my feet? … is the path ahead level or is there a dip I cannot see? … what else is along the path that might be a hazard? I know the path I walk very well from all the months I’ve walked it in the bright, morning light. Even in dim light, I’m fairly sure of the way. But if I didn’t know the path or if there were crossings or points of divergence, having light with which to see would be essential to avoid losing my way.
Moving through the weeks of Advent is kind of like these morning walks in the dark. In some ways, it is a familiar path … a cycle of weeks that comes around each year … the familiar countdown rhythm that leads to the Christmas celebrations … a wheel that turns like clockwork.
We know the stories … the Annunciation … the mysterious, miraculous pregnancies (mostly for Mary, but also for Elizabeth) … the visions of angels who announce what God is doing … the waiting and the watching … the cry of John the Baptizer: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Even if these aren’t necessarily the passages read in churches and homes each week through Advent, these are the subjects of our Advent hymns. The hymns of Advent aren’t heard much outside of churches – not like the Christmas hymns and carols that have become standards alongside more secular Christmas music that plays almost non-stop from November until year’s end in the stores and on radio stations.
But we don’t necessarily need these external guides to show us the way and tell us when we are in time. We know the path we travel. We have our routines of preparations, how to get things done, signs that the expected event of Christmas is at hand … the tree, the lights, maybe candles on a wreath … the smells of fresh pine and spices and sugar … the rustle of paper and the slicing of scissors and the whispers of tape dispensers. Like a well-trodden path or the hands of the clock, these things tell us where we are and when we are.
But like walking in the dark, sometimes it is good to have a light, something to help us see. And like my morning walks in the dark, some lights are very helpful while certain others are no help at all.
Least helpful to the Advent journey is the swirl and clamor and glare of the cultural Christmas celebration. It’s all glitter and sparkle and overly bright and shiny. There’s the whirl and swirl of activities and festivities. There’s the endless to-do list that gets longer, not shorter, with each item accomplished … oh, don’t forget this other thing … oh, now there’s this to take care of … oh, sure, I can squeeze this in, too … on and on and on it goes. There’s the blare of the holiday music that’s been playing for a month now … the same tunes on the radio as in the stores … the same singers with their once-new takes on old classics … maybe made worse for “fresh arrangements” or up-to-date instrumentation or auto tune. Then there are the crowds of people everywhere, the long lines, the overtired and whining children along with their frustrated adults (who sometimes aren’t any better). Like the glaring headlights of the approaching cars as I walk, these things wash out all the peace, the quiet, the space for contemplation and reflection … the whole point of the Advent season.
And just what is the point of this season we call “Advent”? Isn’t it about getting ready for Christmas? Doesn’t that mean all the things we’re doing to get ready for the main event are, in fact, part of the Advent season of preparation?
Ah … but this is where the cultural approach to Christmas is like the streetlights along the path I walk in the dark. Yes, sometimes these things are helpful an aid support in our Advent observance as we indeed do look toward Christmas and the coming of Jesus as the baby born that holy night in a stable somewhere in the little town of Bethlehem where he was laid to sleep in a manger because there was no crib for his bed. Like the streetlights along the walk path, the guiding lights of culture can assist our preparations. However, like the streetlights along my walking path, sometimes the path we’re on diverges from where the lights are … and sometimes the lights are lighting another way.
The cultural calls to prepare for Christmas don’t help when they pressure us towards consumption of things we don’t need (gifts or food), to buy more than our means honestly can accommodate, to have unrealistic expectations of what our holiday celebrations “should” look like (the perfect tree, the perfect décor, the perfect gifts, the perfect table, the perfect everything). Following these would-be guiding lights can only lead to disappointment because they lead us to expect more than can possibly be done or arranged or provided.
And even at best, when the focus is on the right thing – the birth of Jesus, the lights around us might still take us off our intended path. If the focus is only on the baby in the manger, caroled by candlelight on Christmas Eve, celebrated in the exchange of gifts (birthday presents in Jesus’ name we give to each other), then we’re still a bit off the path. Christmas isn’t just about a poor couple’s baby born in a barn. It’s about God breaking into the world – how God broke into the world then … which gives us some clues as to how God might be breaking in now.
In the midst of all this, the practices of Advent are a lot like my trusty flashlight on those morning walks in the dark. The practices of Advent put the light where we need it to be, to show us the path we intend to be on, to help us avoid what might trip us or cause us to stumble as we find our way through this dark and confusing time.
There’s no way of telling what bumps or stumps or rocks or unexpected breaks in the surface might be lurking as we make our way in through the darkness of Advent this year. We’ve seen plenty of disasters already. The people in Puerto Rico and Florida and Houston are still struggling to rebuild their lives that were ripped apart by hurricanes this summer. We remember how children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary were brutally murdered in Advent five years ago, shattering the season for so many. There’s no way to know what form of chaos will spin its way out of the nation’s capitol next. Here in my area, a decision about charges in the latest high-profile shooting by a police officer could be coming any day now.
We can’t turn off – or even fully unplug – from the Christmas dazzle all around us (even if we want to). We can’t prevent things in the world around us from disrupting our peace and disturbing our path. The world keeps moving. Life keeps happening, the good and the bad.
But we can steward are time, watch how we use our minutes and days and hours … choose carefully where we invest our energy. Such discipline is like that flashlight, guiding our attention to where we need to be looking, what we need to watch for … showing us the way we intend to travel so we can take our steps accordingly.
I don’t have to walk in the dark on these mornings. I have other options … places to walk inside where it’s not just warm, there’s also light. But I choose to walk in the dark … to be outside … to connect with the physical world around me … the rhythm of the seasons … the cycles of life.
Observing the season of Advent is that same sort of intentional engagement. It is choosing to walk the dark, yet familiar way. It requires both intention and attention. It takes effort to stay on the way … to take the time out of the rush for quiet contemplation … to sit with the small light of candles in hope and expectation that a greater light will come … to look at the coming of God in the Jesus story so we can better see the coming of God in our stories. We won’t see these things unless we’re looking … unless we know where to look … take the time to look … and have some light by which to see.
As our seasons cycle again into winter’s darkness
As the year of your Church moves from the end of one cycle into the advent of a new
As the calendar that has marked this year enters the final weeks and we wait for a new one to begin
Turning again to your promise to come once more
Remembering how you came to us a baby in Bethlehem’s manger
Trusting your presence that has sustained us to this time
May the hope of your coming and the light of your presence sustain us through the darkness of winter. As we wait for the day of your promise, may your birth in our darkness renew our hope and life as we watch and wait for your return and the coming of the Day.