Advent is a season for us to settle down deeply into ourselves–to hear our heart cry, to find that spark of life and hope deep within the darkness of unknowing. Desires unfulfilled. Hope unmet. Longing unsatisfied. It is a time of discernment, of waiting, of being present. It is an active waiting. Because of this, it seems appropriate that in the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest time of year. I’ve heard that that is one of the reasons why the celebration of Christmas was set for end of December. Because in a very real way, it is the Christ child that ushers in the light.
The Jewish people don’t look at time as we do. Their day begins at sunset…it begins with darkness, It is appropriate that Advent, which is the beginning of the church calendar, would likewise begin in stillness and the dark, with us facing our deepest fears and desires, cultivating our hope for the light. In the silence and the darkness, we hear our own heart’s cry, our own flame of desire, our own longing for God.
St. John of the Cross wrote about the dark night of the soul in the 16th century. He described it as a very real place where everything in life becomes clouded and an almost tangible darkness takes hold. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. The Dark Night of the Soul is a place where hope is lost and you feel abandoned by God, which according to St. John, can lead even the most faithful to doubt God’s existence.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta devoted her life to caring for the people in the slums of India. Yet this beloved saint wrote of her own journey into the darkness. She said, “In my soul I feel the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not existing… “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” I don’t know about you, but I can understand this place that Mother Teresa is describing. I’ve been there. I’ve felt the pain of darkness.
Isaiah 9 talks about the children of Israel who were living through their own darkness… a dark night of the soul. They’d heard the promise of the Messiah long ago, but it had been over 400 years since God had spoken to them. They felt hopeless and abandoned by God. Advent looks back into their darkness and reminds us that the light was coming. Advent does begin in darkness, but it directs our gaze to the flickering light of hope in the distance.
Jan Richardson writes about this place of darkness and hope. Her words powerfully sum up this tension between darkness, light, and hope.
“Darkness is where incarnation begins. The texts of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany shimmer with the light that God brings into our midst, as in the prologue to John’s Gospel: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5). Yet if we lean too quickly toward the light, we miss seeing one of the greatest gifts this season has to offer us: that the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us. In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in it. I will give you the treasures of darkness, God says in Isaiah 45:3, and riches hidden in secret places. For the Christ who was born two millennia ago, for the Christ who seeks to be born in us this day, the darkness is where incarnation begins.”