Here in the Northern Hemisphere the days are getting very short; and they’re going to get even shorter. In Washington D.C., where I live, it’s dark by 5:00 PM. On cloudy days, it’s almost dark by 4:00! My brothers both live farther north, one in St. Paul and the other in Seattle; it gets dark even earlier there.
There’s a humorous quote (attributed to Yogi Berra) that goes, “It’s getting late very early out there.”
For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious, little more than an annoyance as we merely have to switch on the lights earlier.
But think of those who lived not long before us, in a time before abundant electrical lighting. Perhaps it was possible to huddle near a candle or fire, but in the end, 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, during a widespread power outage, I was struck by just how incredibly dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and inside lights emanating from homes. Frankly, I found it hard to even venture out. Bearings were quickly lost and I stumbled over simple things like a curb and a fence post. We moderns just aren’t used to this.
Once, I toured Luray Caverns in the 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 over 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). An old prayer says, Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.
As the drama of light outside continues, the shortest, darkest days of the year approach (December 21st and 22nd). By December 23rd, the ancients noticed a slight return of the light. 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 middle of one of the longest nights, the liturgy of Christmas begins. Christ is born, and on December 25th a new light shines. The days begin to 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 is Jesus, the light of the world. 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.