Many people think of Advent merely in terms of pre-Christmas activities: office parties, shopping, decorating, and so forth. In the Church, though, Advent is something of a penitential period, a time of preparation for both the Christmas Feast and the Second Coming of the Lord. The purple vestments represent 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 quote (attributed to Yogi Berra), “It’s getting late early out there.”
For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious. It is little more than an annoyance, as it means that 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 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 in their daily lives.
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.
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 … (John 1:5).
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.
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, but here are some examples if you are interested: Advent Hymns That Speak to the Light.
II. Our Stance to the Light and Darkness – Ultimately we are either facing the light and welcoming Him, or facing 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?
Scripture warns in many places about the two ways of light and darkness, admonishing us to stand and walk in the light. Here are just a few:
- 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 (Ro 13:11-14).
- 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 (1 Th 5:1-11).
- 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! (Mt 6:22-24)
- 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 (2 Pt 1:19).
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, the teachings of the Church, and 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.
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:
- 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 (Ho 6:5).
- ‘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 (Mt 25:6-11).
- 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. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings (Mal 4:1-2).
- 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 (Jn 3:16-21).
There is not sufficient time in this brief post to comment on each of these texts except to say that each summons 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; we will recoil in wrath rather than 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; 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 incomprehensible brightness. Walk in the Light!
A blessed Advent to all.