Last year, as Advent approached, it was the beginning of a very difficult time for me and my family. The first week of Advent, my wife had just gone through her second chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer and was having a bad reaction. It was a season of great stress and fear.
Sometime that week, I got a message from a friend who reminded me that this was also literally the darkest time of year. She reminded me that even if we were not enduring what we were in terms of Gretchen’s illness, we might still find this part of the year difficult and depressing; and I needed to hold on to the knowledge that there would be brighter days.
I heard her message while simultaneously being confronted by the first barrage of Christmas advertising and frivolity. That prompted me to reflect on the difference between the way Christians are invited to prepare for Christmas as people of faith in the season and practice of Advent, and the way we are encouraged to prepare for Christmas by the surrounding culture.
One of the first readings for Advent comes from Isaiah (9:2), where it says, "A people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned." In the liturgical calendar of the year, and in the traditional practices of the Church over the centuries, it has not been assumed that these few weeks before Christmas should be time for making merry. Rather these weeks are to be seen as a time for reflection and quiet preparation for a miraculous event, the revelation of genuine hope.
If one follows the readings set out for Advent in the lectionary, one finds that this is a liturgical season—a spiritual season, if you will—that specifically acknowledges and invites our reflection on the harder realities of human existence while pointing us to, and inviting us to prepare to receive, the only thing that can help us endure those realities. The people who were waiting for the Messiah those many years ago were living under political and religious oppression. They were mostly poor, generally very poor, and the conditions in which they lived were hard and often violent. Those were the realities they hoped a savior could change.
The hard realities of human existence now are not all that different for most people. These include the facts that darkness—psychological, emotional, spiritual, and moral, as well as physical—is real, hard to understand, and often hurtful. People can be and often are mean, violent, selfish, and uncaring. They often hurt other people and the larger world, and the world is full of inexplicable suffering because of this.
Moreover, even without the damage we do to one another, life can be hard, even for those of us who are not poor or oppressed. We get sick, our loved ones die, good people suffer tragedies, and the natural world produces floods and famines and all kinds of calamities that create enormous pain and sorrow. Finally, the truth is we are often bewildered by why things are this way; and try as we may, we cannot change these facts.
The commercial Christmas season offers us decorations, tinsel, parties, and wonderful, uplifting music. It offers us immediate gratification of all sorts, for which (ironically) many of us pay for months to come, and it invites self-indulgence. In what is, in the Northern Hemisphere, literally the darkest of seasons we are encouraged to hang lights to brighten our spirits and our existence. (And I should go on record, before I sound like a Scrooge, that I have great fun hanging Christmas lights, and I love the music of the season.)
We need to remember, however, that it is artificial light we create with our decorations. Moreover, the cheer of the season passes quickly, and it fails to touch some lives at all. Psychologists tell us that problems with depression are actually more common at this time of year. In some ways, many of the commercial and secular practices surrounding Christmas can be seen as primarily a diversion from the literal darkness, and perhaps the accompanying emotional darkness of the season, and they do not work always or for all people.
In contrast, the traditional practices of Advent invite us to do something Quakers should know well. They invite us to wait expectantly for the coming of the real Light. The traditional practices of Advent invite us to prepare to receive the Christ, the One who is "the light of the world." Instead of offering us distractions, Advent invites us to focus on the most real of all lights, the light of God.
In Advent we are urged to wait expectantly, preparing ourselves to receive the One who taught us, and will still teach us, how to meet the enduring hardships of human existence with patience, love, and grace. When we receive that Light, we come to understand that only the power of God can overcome the powers of evil—but it can. We come to understand that only the love of God can overcome hatred—but it can. We come to understand that only the Light of God can finally overcome the real darkness we find all around us, and sometimes within us.
Finally we come to understand that only that Divine Light can bring us real hope, but as we open ourselves to it and let it flow through us it can do that. What is more, it can transform us into vehicles of light and hope for others.
This is the light we wait for in Advent, and it is worth the wait. Then we need to learn to prepare in every season to wait for and welcome God’s presence, the reality of the Christ, into our hearts and our midst, so that it can transform us into Light. Perhaps that is what we can learn in the practice of Advent in the coming season. That is what I hope for most fondly.