It’s Getting Late Very Early Out There: On the Great Drama of Light at Advent and Christmas

Outside, there is a great drama of light and darkness is unfolding before us. The light is giving way to darkness.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere the days are getting very short just now. And they’re going to get even shorter. In Washington DC, where I live, it is dark by 5pm. On cloudy days it is almost dark by 4pm. My brothers both live further north, one in St. Paul the other in Seattle. It’s dark even earlier there.

An old expression (probably by Yogi Berra) goes, “It’s getting late very early out there.”

For us, who live in modern times of electricity, the drama is less obvious, little more than an annoyance as we switch on more lights.

But think of those who lived not long before us, in a time before abundant electrical lights. Perhaps it was possible to huddle near a candle or fire, but in the end, the darkness put a real stop to most things. Neither work, nor reading, nor most forms of recreation could take place. Darkness was a significant factor.

Recently, in a widespread power outage, I was struck at just how really dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and lights from homes. Frankly it was hard to venture out. Bearings were quickly lost and I stumbled over simple things like a curb or fence post. We moderns just aren’t used to this.

Once I toured Luray Caverns in the nearby Shenandoah Mountains. At the bottom of the caverns hundreds of feet down they gathered us near the center of a large cave and shut off the lights. The darkness was overwhelming. It was almost a physical feeling. I felt a wave of slight panic sweep through me and was so relieved when the lights came back on. Is this what it is like to be blind? Light is very precious.

And so, here in a “deep and dark December,” the light continues to recede. The spiritual impact of this drama of light is brought into the Church. Our hymns turn to images of light. The darker it gets, the more candles we light on the Advent wreath. In the darkest moments of December our Advent wreath is at its brightest. As Scripture says, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:5, 9). And old prayer says, Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.

As the drama of light outside continues, December 21 and 22nd are the shortest, darkest days of the year. By December 23rd, the ancients noticed a slight return of the Light. Now the morning star heralds something new, something brighter.

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

And then, on December 24th, in the deep center of one of the the longest nights, the liturgy of Christmas begins, Christ is born and on December 25th a new light shines. From then on, the days get longer.

Yes, a great drama of light is unfolding before us. It is Advent. It is time to recognize our need for the light and just how precious Jesus, the light of the world is. Ponder in these darkest days the beauty of the light.

Consider too the theme of light in many of the Advent songs we sing. Here are few excerpts, mostly from Old Latin Hymns:

From Veni, Veni, Emmanuel:

O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh:
Disperse the gloomy cloud of night
And death’s dark shadow put to flight
Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel,
Shall come to thee O Israel.

From the German Hymn Wachet auf:

Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
Come forth, ye virgins, night is past;
The Bridegroom comes, awake;
Your lamps with gladness take;
Alleluia! And for His marriage feast prepare
For ye must go and meet Him there.

From Conditor Alme Siderum

Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting light
Oh Christ, thou savior of us all,
We pray thee hear us when we call

From Vox Clara ecce intonat:

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say,
“Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”
Wakened by the solemn warning
Let the earthbound soul arise;
Christ, her Sun, all ill dispelling,
Shines upon the morning skies.

From the Li­tur­gy of St. James, 4th Cen­tu­ry (Σιγησάτο παρα σὰρξ βροτεία):

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

From Veni Redemptor Gentium:

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene

Enjoy this Advent and watch for the Light, it will surely come

6 Replies to “It’s Getting Late Very Early Out There: On the Great Drama of Light at Advent and Christmas”

  1. As you know i love music it is so much a part of me. I would love to learn the melody of the traditional hymns of the Church. Is there a CD WITH LYRICS that I an buy. PLEASE HELP.. OR A WEBSITE i can go to to purchase. Thanks Msgr.

  2. Dear Nick,

    Of darkness and light…yes, both created by God….:)….for He said, “Let there be light”, thus bringing light to this dark Earth, and from the Beginning….so…was God the Creator of darkness?….or is it always ‘there’?….anyway…and then, God allowed the Light to come into this sad, lonely, darkened world at the Birth of Our Lord and Savior,…and since Christ, we now know darkness because of the Light.

  3. I really like Nick’s post which inspired me to think that, although evil fears the light, the dark is not a fearsome thing if one respects one’s self as a worthy creation of God and deals with the risks that darkness presents, as I learned during my time in the Infantry. John 3:
    The part where the increasing length of winter nitghs as one moves northward is commented on reminds me of how much that is reflected on in the poetry of Robert Service who wrote about the gold rush in the American and Canadian arctic and how inspiring his poetry was to me.
    For instance, my last year’s Christmas card poem (which I shared about a year ago)

    (See John 1:1-5)

    On Christmas Day
    As the sunlight grows longer
    And darkness recedes
    While the light grows stronger
    We celebrate with a feast
    The Birth of the Word
    Whose nourishing message
    Of love was heard
    So that our spirits can strengthen
    And grow a little bit more
    As we move toward light
    Through the opening door

    And, also this year’s

    We wake up on Christmas Morning
    To gifts in a sock or under a tree
    But the greatest Gift was in a stable
    Destined for a tree at Calvary

    I’ve previously published them in this blog for anyone to use if they wish but, why not again?
    Thank you for this post

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