Advent 2 – Embracing the Darkness
Advent used to be a period of repentance and fasting like Lent. With the Church’s decision to celebrate the Mass of the birth of Christ at the same time as the established observance of the solstice, Advent therefore came to correspond with the days of increasing darkness (since Christianity was still a Northern hemisphere religion at the time). In pre-modern times, people found more meaning in the turning of the seasons. While we might be aware that the days are growing shorter in our contemporary world, it is not something that concerns us too greatly given that we have wired houses and glowing screens to chase away the darkness that encroaches.
But when the lengthening of the nights brought the darkness ever closer, it had to be faced for what it was. Without the distractions of the light which provide the space to keep hands and minds busy with work and play, one has to be alone with the parts of life many of us would often rather avoid. Without light to distract us, there is nothing to silence the reminders of grief or the inevitability of death. The questions that haunt us, the memories we fear, and the reminders of the pain surrounding us come creeping in with the darkness.
And for much of human history, this period of opportunity to face the darkness was embraced.
Rituals were devised to help one face the darkness and to even grapple with the darkness within oneself. The period of Advent, mirroring the cultural habits of the season, similarly became a period of repentance and fasting as Christians found the time in the longer periods of darkness to look inward and face the questions that often get brushed aside in the everyday busyness of life. It was a time of vulnerability, a time when it was okay to mourn, to admit to doubts, and to do the hard work of recognizing the parts of oneself that needed to be healed or changed.
To protect themselves in their period of vulnerability and introspection, people in European cultures would hang evergreen branches around the openings of their homes. These symbols of hope that life survives the darkness were thought to keep evil spirits from entering and taking advantage of the vulnerable rituals of the darkness. But the protections were not against the darkness as people knew that the darkness was a natural part of the rhythm of life. The protections were only against that which would take advantage of people as they tried to open themselves up to wrestling with the scary parts of life that must be faced in order for one to grow.
Embracing the approaching darkness was not merely about awaiting the return of the light. The light was celebrated once it returned, but the period of darkness was not just survived but embraced as a necessary part of what shaped the development of the holistic person.
Too often in Advent we rush towards the light. We make it all about preparing for the event of the Christ child without taking the time to be in the darkness. We look forward to a light to distract us without wrestling with the meaning of the darkness. Perhaps we should return to the habit of embracing the darkness instead.