Advent and the Drama of Light and Darkness

120414Here are the summary notes from a talk I gave tonight at the Parish of St. Columba, here in D.C.

Many people think of Advent merely in terms of pre-Christmas time: office parties, shopping, decorating etc. But in the Church, Advent is more a penitential period, a time of preparation for both the Christmas Feast and the Second Coming of the Lord. The purple vestments signal penance. The faithful are encouraged to go to Confession, and the liturgical texts and readings emphasize readying for the coming of the Lord.

The theme of preparation (and much of the season itself) is couched in the dramatic struggle between light and darkness. This makes sense (at least in the northern hemisphere, where the darkness deepens and the days grow shorter). In these darkest days, we light candles and sing hymns that speak of the light that will come: Jesus the true Light of the World. Let’s take a look at Advent in three ways.

I. The Symbols of Darkness and Light – Outside, there is a great drama of light and darkness unfolding before us. The light is giving way to darkness. 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 is dark by 5:00 PM. On cloudy days, it is nearly dark by 4:00 PM. My brothers both live farther north: one in St. Paul and the other in Seattle. It gets dark even earlier there. There’s even a famous saying (probably by Yogi Berra), “It’s getting late very early out there.”

For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious. It is little more than an annoyance, as we must switch on the lights earlier. But think of those who lived not long before us in an age before electrical lights. Perhaps it was possible to huddle near a candle, oil lamp, 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.

Some years ago, during a widespread power outage, I was struck at just how incredibly dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and the lights emanating from homes. Frankly, it was hard to venture out. I lost my bearings quickly and stumbled over some simple things like a curb and a fencepost. 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 an almost physical feeling. I felt a wave of slight panic sweep over me and was so relieved when the lights came back on. I wondered, “Is this what it’s like to be blind?” Yes, 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 days 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 and darkness outside continues, we arrive at December 21st and 22nd—the shortest, darkest days of the year. By December 23rd, the ancients could detect 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 …
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 of the year, 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 a 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. There are so many Advent hymns that set forth the dramatic images of light, darkness, and expectancy. They are too numerous to list here. However, click here if you wish to see some samples: Advent hymns that speak to the Light.

Of course, this external drama of light and darkness in nature is but a symbol of the great struggle between light and darkness in our world, our culture, our own hearts, and the hearts of all whom we love. It is the greatest drama of each of our lives. Will we choose to walk in the light or will we prefer the darkness? Our choice will determine our destiny. Judgment day is coming and we must be prepared by embracing the light of God’s truth and Jesus Himself, who is the Light of the World.

Thus, in Advent, we are summoned to understand how bad the darkness of sin really is, and we are warned to prepare for the coming judgment. Almost all the readings of the first two weeks of Advent speak to this theme of warning and readiness. The Dies Irae, which most associate with the Latin Requiem Mass, was actually written as a hymn for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Now, of course, some may protest such “negative” themes for Advent. But remember, if we aren’t aware of the bad news, then the good news is no news. Hence, this Advent reflection on the seriousness of the dark reality of sin is to prepare us for even greater joy at the birth of a Savior, who is the Light of the World and can lead us out of the dark tomb of sin into the wonderful light of grace.

Hence, the symbols of light and darkness point to a real drama and remind us to be sober and serious about the trouble we’re in, why we really need a savior, and how good it is to greet the Light of the World … IF we are prepared.

II. Our Stance to the Light and Darkness – Ultimately we are either facing the light and welcoming Him, or facing and in the darkness. These are the only two stances possible. There is no third way. Are you walking in the light or are you standing in the darkness?

This is Our Moral Stance. Scripture warns in many places about the two ways of light and darkness, and admonishes us to stand and walk in the light. Here are just a few:

  1. (Ro 13:11–14) Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
  2. (1 Th 5:1–11) But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
  3. (Mt 6:22-24) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
  4. (2 Pe 1:19) And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Thus, we are warned what time it is, that judgment draws ever closer, and that we must walk and stand with the light and not be like those in darkness. The Advent season acknowledges the reality of deepening darkness, and that we must all the more run to the coming  light, Jesus. We must walk in the light of His truth as set forth in His word, in the teachings of the Church, and in creation. We must seek the enlightenment of the Sacraments and live in honesty, integrity, and mutual fellowship with the Lord’s Body, the Church. This is to be our moral stance: toward the light and away from the darkness.

This is Our Liturgical Stance – Since we are discussing the season of Advent, we might also do well to mention something of our liturgical stance as well. Over the past few decades, our liturgical stance has become muddled and somewhat incoherent. What used to be a clear stance of a community facing East, has become an increasingly closed circle, a sort of image of a community closed in on itself, singing of itself, and referring incessantly to itself in song and (self-)congratulatory applause. Until about 1965, the almost universal liturgical stance was of a community all facing one direction (liturgical East, symbolized by the Crucifix more than by the compass), and being led there by a celebrant who could see where he was going. The celebrant, as alter Christus, represented Christ leading his people to the Father in adoration and thanksgiving. The priest, as a man, stood at the head of the community looking for Christ to come again. Scripture quite frequently attests that God will come “from the East.” (Again, it is less a matter of the compass and more a matter of the community all looking toward the liturgical East, the Cross.) Looking to the East for God to come is no arbitrary notion of a primitive religion. It is well attested in Scripture and makes sense based on the fact that the East is where the light comes from. Physical light is a symbol of the True Light, who is our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. Here are just a few Scripture references:

  1. (Mt 24:27–28) For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
  2. (Bar 4:36) Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God!
  3. (Eze 43:1–5) Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
  4. (Psalm 68:32-34) Sing to God, ye kingdoms of the earth: sing ye to the Lord: Sing to God, who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Behold he will give to his voice the voice of power: give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds!

This is not intended to be a full-length treatment of the “Ad orientem” question regarding the stance of the priest and the people. Here I only wish to note that our liturgical stance has become muddled. If it is true that our stance should be toward the Light, then why are we facing all sorts of different and “opposing” directions in the liturgy? Why do we not all face East together for the great Eucharistic Prayer, as we did for over 19 centuries? While it is fitting that the Liturgy of the Word be celebrated toward the people, it seems that the Eucharistic Prayer is more suitably proclaimed with the whole community (priests included) facing to the East—toward God—for it is to God that the prayer is directed and it is to God that the people are led in admiration, thanksgiving, and pilgrimage.  The Advent hymn says it well: “People look East, the time is near!”

III. The Summons to the Light – Having laid out the great drama of light and darkness and heard that we should take a stand for and toward the light, we note that Advent also proclaims, through a series of biblical texts and prayers, a warning to those who either reject the light outright or just fail to prepare for it. Here are just a few biblical texts:

  1. (Ho 6:5) Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.
  2. (Mt 25:6–11) Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish maidens said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
  3. (Mal 4:1–2) For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
  4. (Jn 3:16–21) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

There is not sufficient time in this post to comment on each of these texts above except to say that they summon us to the light in a spirit of readiness, having first prepared ourselves by becoming accustomed to the light and the fire of God’s love. If we are not ready, the light will seem blinding and the fiery love unbearable, and we will recoil in wrath, rather then rejoice in wonder.

Pay attention to these Advent themes. It’s getting late very early these days. Consider this a warning from the natural world (the Book of Creation), which the Church picks up in her liturgy. Prepare the way of the Lord! Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand. Walk in the light! If we do, light, all glorious and unending, will be ours:

There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; 4 they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.  And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Re 22:3–5).

This is our future, IF we are faithful and allow the Lord to enlighten us now so that we can love the future light of ten thousand megawatts. Walk in the Light!

A blessed Advent to all.

18 Replies to “Advent and the Drama of Light and Darkness”

  1. Msgr. Pope, you are truly gifted. Your words resonate so deeply within our souls. We were made for the truth and your writings/talks fulfill that desire within us . Thank you and may the Lord continue you to bless you and increase the talents He has given you.

  2. A ‘muddled’ liturgical stance. I agree wholeheartedly. As a Deacon, I get to ‘see from the side’ so to speak, and sometimes yearn to turn toward the cross (which is behind our altar). I always wondered where that yearning comes from.
    I have also observed some priests who celebrate ‘versus populum’ maintaining eye contact with the vessels and gifts only during the Eucharistic Prayer, and rarely looking at the congregation.
    You are right and I am concerned that we are ‘muddling’ our liturgical stance. I continue to yearn, but will always remember to look to the light!
    Thank you Msgr, and may your Advent be glorious!

    Deacon Jimmy

  3. “The Summons to the Light…”

    We need to summon the Islamist into the light….the light of Jesus

    In Iraq, 4 young men were beheaded for not renouncing Jesus Christ, they said:

    “No, we love Yesua (Jesus), we have always loved Yesua, we have always followed Yesua, Yesua has always been with us.”

    We need to move quickly with a new theological and Orthodox approach: a new way of speaking and teaching.

    A new way of story telling. Please, please, please Msgr. help me!

  4. Jimmy Akin, an apologist whom I admire, said in answer to a question from a caller that Advent is not a penitential season. He gave as the reason for saying this that no Church document has anything about Advent being a penitential time. I don’t want to start Duelling Bloggers here but it would be good if orthodox Catholic bloggers were on the same page with things like this. Is Advent a penitential time or not and what are your sources?

    1. Not a big deal is it really. See my response to CPA. I would have greater concern it bloggers we not on the page about dogma or doctrine. What would you call the Advent season given what I said to CPA. I dunno, I am a pastor, I was trained this way, I have always preached this way. I am not a canonist, neither am I a certified liturgist. I am a pastor. I think Jimmy Aiken has a great deal of sophistication about how words are used in different senses (strict, literal, loosely, analogously etc). I rather doubt he and I are directly disagreeing or not on the “same page.” So I would encourage you Sharon and others not to be too concerned about what is largely in the category of a pastoral stance vs. a canonical stance. Be of good cheer. All is well!

    1. Yes, I think the strict and wide sense of words is what you may be missing.

      The prayers of the season and the purple vestments call us to a time or prayer, and preparation to meet Christ. The readings speak to us of our sinful condition, our need for a savior and the will of God to save us. Jesus warns of the second coming (for example last Sunday – Watch!) We are warned that he’d better not find us napping etc but doing the work he gave us to do. In the office we read from Isaiah and especially the first week contains a long recital of the sins of Judah (i.e. us). The Second Sunday of Advent features John the Baptist baptizing people and calling for repentance of their sins etc. He also warns of the wrath to come etc.

      So I would argue the tone of Advent is penitential even if Canon Law (which is not the only or last word on anything) does not strictly use the term. I think we are justified in calling it penitential in tone.

      I dunno, if you don’t use that word, “penitential” (at least in the pastoral, not juridical sense) what term would you use? Any ideas? I think simply calling a time or preparation is too vague since I suppose a person could do just about anything and call it preparation. But the “preparation” the readings, prayers and music seem to have in mind is a preparation of acknowledging our sins, our need for a savior and a willingness to repent. So we’re back to penitential. So, I dunno, tell me another word.

      By the way the Dies Irae was written as a hymn for the Second Sunday of Advent! Again that doesn’t make it legally penitential, but surely the pastoral tone is penitential, or whatever substitute word you can offer that captures that.

  5. Hi All
    ‘Scuse me – but why are we arguing over whether Advent is penitential or not?? I would ask a single question about how it ‘looks’. Why, if it is not penitential in tone, does the church use purple vestments – exactly the same as in Lent?!
    It strikes me that, pastorally speaking, Advent is very much a time for penitence, as we are not only awaiting Our Lord’s first coming, symbolically on the altar and in all the glorious liturgy of Christmas, but we are, as Mgr Charles says, very much ‘getting ready’ for when Our lord comes again in Glory – for which we must be prepared!!
    In any case, I would humbly submit that I think we should all think of every day in our lives as being a penitential ‘season’. I fail constantly, so I try to start each and every day by either whispering or silently asking God to ‘help me get it right today’ and to ask for the strength and grace to recognise each and every time I fall and to immediately ask God’s forgiveness and the ability to pick myself up and start again. Each day – hour – minute, I feel, should be penitential.
    Let us pray for God to help us to admit when we have offended against Him and to ask forgiveness in the words of the old hymn,
    “I need Thee, O I need Thee;
    Every hour I need Thee;
    O bless me now, my Saviour,
    I come to Thee.”
    God bless all.

  6. Thank you, Msgr. for the thoughtful and well-researched explanation. I can’t find another word, but I’ll suggest an imperfect one at the end of my note here. I tend to think of Lent as being ‘penitential’ more than Advent. If the focus during Advent was strictly on the penitential – repent of your sins – then I think we miss the other tones or themes associated with Advent, such as “waiting” (kairos vs. chronos; pregnancy; faith; recognizing and responding to God’s invitation) and the “plan” God has for each of us represented through the Incarnation, partly as expressed through Paul’s letter to Ephesus (cf. 1, 3-14) as a benevolent plan which we greet with wonder, welcoming, joy and gratitude. Penitential themes exist and are important; I just tend to think the other themes have a greater priority during Advent, which may be summarized by the Aramaic word, “Maranatha” (Rev. 22:20)roughly meaning: Come, Lord Jesus.

  7. After the Consecration God is not to the East but in the midst of us, there present on the altar. I try to keep my eyes on the gifts during the Offertory and, except for the sign of peace, steadily until I go up for Communion. If the priest were between me and the gifts on the altar, this would be impossible.

    1. OK but he is on the altar, and so he still comes to you from the east where the priest is facing you or not.

      Also, the priest is Jesus, so your notion of the priest blocking your vision is a bit strange. The priest is a Sacrament of the present of Jesus too. So perhaps a little sacramental theology is helpful for here.

      Further, your “seeing” a paten or chalice does not make Jesus more or less present to you. Otherwise, I suppose, blind people are in real trouble. Your personal notion that you must see, and the implication that this seeing would be “impossible” if the priest were blocking you, indicates that you mean a physical seeing (i.e. photons hitting your retina). But this is not the seeing of faith. We walk by faith and not by sight. St. Paul says, who hopes for what he sees? Jesus says, you believe Thomas because you see, blessed are those who do not see but still believe. and so forth. So faith is a way of seeing spiritually, but physical seeing is not faith. Faith comes by hearing. Hence I would argue that the need to physically see (since you say it would be impossible if the priest physically blocks your view) is not the sort of seeing you should seek. At key moments when we are called to behold, the priest elevates the Host and chalice, but otherwise, looking at a metal cup or bowl on the altar does not allow you to see either, unless you are up way high and able to peer down into the vessels.

      Well, nuff said.

      1. i grew up with the full Latin Rite Mass, with the priest facing the altar. Sister Marcelline Marie, our Mother Superior summed it up for us beautifully. She said the priest faces the Lord in an intimate and sacred union and we support him in humble, loving obeisance to our God.

  8. My understanding is that Advent is not a penitential season but a season of “expectation” which does include certain times and elements of penance. It is also my understanding that the 1962 liturgical books of the Roman Rite consider Advent as a penitential season.

    While the liturgical color is violet for certain and the majority of Sundays, other liturgical colors are used throughout the Advent Season.

    People look East while the Priest look West…strange?

  9. After 35 years as Lutheran pastors, my wife and I entered the fullness of the Faith by confirmation three years ago. Mnsgr Pope’s reflections have affirmed and heightened a lifetime of reflection on this holy season. We have book-marked this and will revisit it often and probably share it each time. Thank you for reminding us of what this season is really about!

    Michael Boggs

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