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:
- (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.
- (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.
- (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!
- (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:
- (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.
- (Bar 4:36) Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God!
- (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.
- (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:
- (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.
- (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.
- (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.
- (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.