Today I am confused about Advent. I mean I know what the lectionary tells me it is, I know what the sacred reading tell me it is, but I am not altogether sure how to embody its observances and practices into my life.
I do know that it starts in darkness…and part of my world has been dark these past few weeks, with the expected but never welcome, loss of two women who have been exemplars and friends to me. Both were in their 80s’; both extended themselves to me at vulnerable points in my life, especially in my ministry in the Church. I mourn them and will miss them.
There is other darkness as well. I grieve for the little ones who are so vulnerable in the wake of political and military conflict–war, unrest, marginalization, neglect–around the world. I grieve for what seem to be an opaque cloak over the charity and open-heartedness of the Church, in almost every iteration and denomination. I mourn in anger for the widening divides in the world between the comfortable haves and the imperiled have-nots.
But I cling to Psalm 139: If I say “surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness, my darkness, is not dark to you. The night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. ) vv.11-12
The saints knew that darkness did not mean the absence of the Holy One. John of the Cross knew much and had much to say about darkness. For him it was an invitation to new meaning, a chance to struggle through our own tangled understandings and ambiguities to a clearer knowledge of who we are and who God is. The beginning of our transformation into the person we are meant to be begins in the darkness while we move toward God. “We are affected by darkness, therefore, where we are most deeply involved and committed, and what we love and care for most.” (Collected works of John of the Cross). I am comforted to know that John of the Cross understood my opening wondering of how to incarnate that posture in my day to day living in Advent; he has practical advice:trust, rest in God, stay with your experience, do not worry that prayer is not productive, be free and attentive.
That is a way to begin this Advent, acknowledging the darkness of all kinds, yet believing that God is present in all of them, I am called to pay attention, what Walter Burghardt calls, “a long, loving look at the real.” It is seeing with clarity the way the world is, from my perch; it is savoring the beauty of all that is around me–hummingbird, liquid amber tree, aging friend, irrepressible grandchild– as well as to take note of bitter sadness, unspeakable loss, and brokenness of heart. I can do that only because Advent readies us to see Light breaking into our human condition and all its darkness and frailty and all its beauty and joy. Advent is meant to grow our hope, to deepen our trust, to increase our joy.
Some of the darkness of my own confusion about Advent is dispelled with John’s wisdom. So, for this first week of Advent, I will pay attention to the real, knowing that darkness and light are the same to God; all is held and loved by the One who has come and is coming again!
O come, O Dayspring, from on high, and cheer us by your drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.