Thinking Anew: Why Advent is a time to savour the darkness and light
The purpose of Advent is to prepare slowly and carefully for the 12 days of the feast of Christ
We light a single candle, adding another as each week passes. Photograph: iStock
Advent – that most gracious of seasons – is almost upon us. My birthday falls in Advent so for me it instinctively feels like a time to relish being alive. Advent is the beginning of the church’s year which means that during this coming week the old year draws to a close, with its joys and its sorrows, its hopes and its fears. In our culture we start celebrating Christmas very early but liturgically it does not begin until midnight on Christmas Eve. Underlying the inevitable activity leading up to this there is a kind of cosmic suspension, a holding of the breath, as we head together for the very darkest time of the whole year – the Winter Solstice, itself a sacred day.
Some years ago I had an Advent experience of the darkness which has nourished me ever since. I came home late, after an evening out, with a heavy heart. I no longer remember the details but I was feeling distressed and lonely. I arrived home and slipped into bed beside my sleeping husband. I turned out the light.
To my hurting heart it seemed like all the love in my life was contained in the darkness, and it brought me healing. The darkness was brimming with the kindness of God. I was quietly overcome by thankfulness and fell asleep full of the peace which passes all understanding. Ever since then I have been alive to the beauty of darkness in a way I hadn’t been before. God revealed himself to me in it, and it was a beautiful gift of grace.
I mention this because sometimes there is not enough emphasis on the treasures of darkness. It can seem like a better thing to fast-forward to the celebration, the party, the ecstasy, the light. But the church, in her wisdom, shows us a better way.
As Christians we measure out our common life to a different rhythm than that of mainstream culture, seeking at the same time to be open and available and welcoming to those outside the church with whom we share our lives. The liturgical year is such a treasure, an anchor, the hidden heart-beat of our lives. The purpose of Advent is to prepare slowly and carefully for the 12 days of the feast of Christ – the celebration at last of the light which has comes to lighten our darkness.
We light a single candle, adding another as each week passes. Advent cannot be hurried because it is about waiting for the birth of a child and everyone knows that babies arrive when they arrive, in their own good time. The baby has to grow steadily in the nourishing darkness and safety of their mother’s womb until they are ready to be born. Waiting is essential work: if it is curtailed for some reason – if the baby is born before it is fully developed, if a seed is dug up from the earth before it has put out shoots strong enough to grow – damage is done.
Advent is a time for training our spirits to wait for God, for his purposes, for his provision, for his hope. Year by year, as we are attentive, we learn something fresh about waiting in the darkness.
Waiting is difficult, and counter-cultural, and Advent is a time for sitting with this. Our experience of life informs us that things do not always work out, so sometimes we are afraid in our waiting. Death, violence, illness, loneliness may sometimes seem like the last word but we know that they are not. They are not. Love is the last word. Love never fails.
I have heard Advent described as the season that is perfectly balanced between hope and despair. This is the place where we learn to wait. We steady ourselves and ready ourselves together to celebrate in the fullness of time the birth of this promised baby boy because he is where the story of our hope begins and ends. He will come back for us, as he has promised. O come O come Emmanuel!