The Impenetrable Darkness (First Sunday of Advent)

“The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel” (1308–1311) by Duccio di Buoninsegna

“4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” -1 Thessalonians 5:4–6 (ESV)

“Occasionally I had nightmares, but in those days just about everybody had nightmares from time to time…” -Roberto Belaño, By Night in Chile

“Advent begins in the dark. Anyone that tells you otherwise is living in denial.”-Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ

Christmastime is a different experience than Advent. Christmastime — and, yes, it is being spelled here in the traditional, one-word form — is a season of bright bulbs, glee, and glimmer. It is a time when nostalgia is summoned in order to put grief to bed, when our memories selectively edit holidays of past that certainly were not as cheery and warm as our brains have reconstructed them to be. Christmastime is lonely for many people, and the assault of “Christmas cheer” can be horribly depressing. But Christmastime has no mercy: the happy songs play over loudspeakers as mad shoppers fill their carts under the headache of florescent lights until one of us has a panic attack or decides to club someone with an Alexa.

That’s Christmastime. It begins in a kind of lit-up, plastic world.

The Church does not begin here. We do not participate in Christmastime; we participate in Advent, a season darkly contrasting the Western vision of “the Holiday Season.” No, our Christmas story doesn’t begin in the manger, with the apocryphal drummer boy blithely playing as the Magi bear gifts.

Advent begins with “the people who walked in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:16), the people of Israel, wandering without a shepherd, lost without a light. Darkness is paralyzing; it is disorienting. Christians recognize this darkness as a dominant metaphor for life without God and therefore without hope. This is where our season begins.

Do you know where you are without God? It’s not difficult to imagine. Our world — a conflicting geographic space of good, evil, and the mundane — can show you what it looks like to be without God. Think about the moments where God has been far from you, where you, like the Psalmist, made your bed with tears (Psalm 6:6) or lost sight of the face of God through your varying circumstances (Psalm 13:1). Or, read the paralyzing accounts of starvation in Yemen after a war America financed or consider the pictures of smoldering homes in Northern California and you’ll get the picture. There is some sense that we are in a space that longs for the recompense of God. We do not live in a simple world wherein God is fully present, but one that is torn between the grace of God and our rebellion from it. The Church has always understood this. Advent is the time we join in a history of longing for the full arrival of God to this planet. We desperately need a light in a dark world.

And yet — and there always is a “yet” with our gospel — we come to Advent knowing the end, knowing with full assurance that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). We see Jesus, light of the world, who has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus’ first arrival as the light to those in the impenetrable darkness assures us that this world we live in will one day again see the fullness of his glory when he returns.

And so, like creation before God spoke, like Israel in slavery or captivity, like the Church in Rome, or the Church today — like the poor and needy, the broken, dispondant and ill — we join with a “cloud of witnesses” that await the coming justice of God. God has come, and yet he will come again. God has shone his light, and he will shine it again on us. Don’t be afraid to begin your season by resisting shiney Christmastime to embrace Advent in the dark. The light will come.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books