“… [W]e need more than the comforting smell of ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ In Advent we are asked to look unflinchingly into the darkness, and how it has invaded people’s lives, with the conviction that redemption is near.”
Memories of my childhood have the backdrop of snow, piles of Western Massachusetts snow. I see myself and the kids from my neighborhood sprawled on snowbanks ten feet high.
Snow, snow, snow, the whole world was filled with snow. Over the course of a day we would eat it, sled on it, create havoc when we packed it into balls and threw it, be told to shovel it, and get it matted in our boots, mittens, and hats that would make puddles on the kitchen floor when we came in from the cold. And with winter being the longest season of the year, by mid-April we would pray to God it would all melt.
But, a memory I had forgotten until this week’s storm was the glow it brings to a winter night. It was late, and I was ready for sleep with the covers pulled over me; my lamp was turned off, but there wasn’t the same darkness as when the ground lies bare. I left the warmth of my bed to look out the window, and though the moon was hidden behind a thick cloud cover, there was enough light reflecting off the snow that I could see detail, like the clothesline strung in my backyard.
Advent is a season of darkness, with something of a snow-lit night. I know, that sounds confusing. It sounds contrary to everything we attempt in the season. We string our homes with lights and plug in a Christmas tree. In the church we light an advent wreath with the four themes of peace, love, joy, and hope. By December 1 we are singing Hark the Harold Angels Sing, but Advent was meant to be a season in which to look into the darkness. And for those of us who live in the Northern hemisphere the long nights offer themselves for introspection, if we will let them.
Advent began in the Middle Ages as something akin to Lent. The four Sundays were given the themes of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. It is a sharp contrast to what we have made of the season, but remember that Christ was born into a world of sin. Fleming Rutledge, a wise preacher, writes that hope is a central key to the meaning of Advent, but it’s a “meager concept if it is not measured against the malevolence and godlessness of the forces that assail the creation and its creatures every day in ‘this present evil age.’” (Gal. 1:4)
Advent begins in the dark, and unless your reasons are for its ambience and a warm scent, we light candles against that darkness. I am not saying there is anything wrong with setting a holiday mood on a cold December night, but the church would do well to recognize that Advent is more than sentimentality. I am asking for something muscular and robust, an observance that is willing to stare down the devil.
I would like to think there is something to the words in the Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
What are we hoping against? What do we fear? In a world gone mad to the indifference of Central Americans fleeing persecution, or with the paralysis we face with global warming, or a nation alarmed by the incivility of our political affairs, we need more than the comforting smell of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” In Advent we are asked to look unflinchingly into the darkness, and how it has invaded people’s lives, with the conviction that redemption is near.
On Sunday night there was a glow over the lawn outside my bedroom window. Storm clouds lay heavy over the sky, but there was enough light from the heavens reflecting off a new fallen ice-crusted snow that I could see detail: tiny branches extending from an oak tree, brown leaves scattered, and the clothesline.
In Advent we look into the night, knowing “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.“ (Jn. 1:5)