Darkness & light – Advent 1, Dec 1, 2019
“It’s always darkest before the dawn”… this common saying, become a cliche, has been coming to me, stuck in my head and heart, in the past week as I have been anticipating advent. I looked up the provenance of the saying to no great revelation. It may have first been written down by English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller, someone I’ve never heard of, in 1650. But darkness and light as metaphors to describe spiritual states and experiences have been used often in sacred writing. I think of 16th century Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and her Interior Castle, as well as St. John of the Cross’s poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” More recently, celebrated preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about befriending darkness in her 2014 book Learning to Walk in the Dark.
If you’ve ever been down into a cave, deep underground, with a guide who has everyone turn off their lights, perhaps you have experienced total darkness. It is a rare and disconcerting experience. Mostly we live with a combination of light and darkness, with light winning out most of the time. In Waterton Park this past summer, I learned that the abundance of light we humans have been creating can be problematic. There is actually an organization dedicated to the preservation of darkness called “The International Dark-Sky Association.” Their mission is to protect the night skies for present and future generations… why? you wonder? Because, as their website says, “For billions of years, all life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It’s encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Humans have radically disrupted this cycle by lighting up the night. Plants and animals depend on Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark rhythm to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators.” Waterton has embraced this work by becoming an “international dark-sky park” through a variety of initiatives. It would seem that for life to flourish in the natural world, we need to embrace darkness once more. We need darkness to rest and restore our bodies and our souls.
Darkness and light are important themes in the church season of Advent, which we enter today. Last year in particular, I encountered confusion about the interplay of these themes, along with an accompanying desire to go straight to celebrating light. It makes sense. Bible passages like the one we hear today from Romans have helped Christianity to construct a binary of light as good and darkness as bad. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness,” Paul writes, “and put on the armour of light…” Such a binary opposition, however, doesn’t recognize how the 2 supposed opposites need each other. In Taylor’s book I mentioned earlier, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she proposes the pair of light and dark existing together in balance, not opposition, asking “What can light possibly mean without dark?” We can only truly see and appreciate light, if we have truly experienced darkness. We can only see the light of dawn breaking on the horizon because it is surrounded by darkness.
The imagery of darkness giving way to light is imagery of hope, the main spiritual theme of Advent. But it is hope that is more robust than what has perhaps become flip self-help advice of “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Advent hope is about more than nostalgia for a better or easier time. So much of the so-called hope we hear about around Christmas is really empty optimism that quickly fails us. It is quick fixes and corny sentimentality. It is the expectation that things will be different even when nothing has changed. It is unbridled consumer consumption and escapist fantasies. But fantasies fade and our sentimentality doesn’t fill the void left by a lack of unconditional love. So much of what passes for hope in our world today is really superficial delusion, false idol or baseless dream.
This is why the idea of waiting in the dark, waiting for light to come, even as darkness deepens, is deeply countercultural. It’s why the season of Advent is deeply counter-cultural. Instead of avoiding or bypassing or filling up with a lesser kind of hope, we anticipate the return of light, while we trust that God is with us in the dark. Advent hope is about understanding the partiality of all our current ways of seeing and knowing. It is when we anticipate the fullness of our life in God who is to come. It is, therefore, grounded in the faith that what God will make possible is not limited by what we are able to imagine. It is a time of waiting and watching for something we can hardly imagine but have always secretly yearned for… that God will again come to fulfil the hope of the ages. Advent hope is when we believe… when we trust… that the fullness of time is coming when God’s peaceable kingdom will be fully known. It is when we learn that even though God’s possibilities cannot be seen in advance, they can be anticipated.
In the meantime, we wait and we prepare for this new day, the new light, to come. We do so in part by living as though it’s already here. We live as though all God’s promises are already fulfilled. We beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks, so we are ready to live in peace. We live thoughtfully… prayerfully… rather than simply giving in to every impulse and desire in every moment we have them. We “live in the interval between the early signs of dawn and the sunrise itself,” and so our behaviour must be appropriate for the day. (NIB, 727)
It is this idea of living “in between” darkness and light… at the moment between night and day… that is the primary metaphor behind the transition from purple to blue as the colour for Advent. Deep blue is the colour of the clear, predawn sky. It is the colour that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises. The moments just before dawn breaks are not only the darkest ones, they are also the ones furthest from the last light. The deep blue of the sky in the moments before dawn represents the time when the night is far gone and the day is near… when salvation is at hand. Such is the spirituality of Advent, the anticipation of a new dawn.
This new set of paraments… the coloured fabric art enhancing our sacred space… altar frontal, pulpit banner, burse, veil and stole… is designed to remind us of this spiritual moment. Some of you will remember hand writing favourite, meaningful, prayers last year. Those prayers have been screen-printed onto blue dupioni silk in a range of blue, purple and gold metallic pigments by fabric artist Thomas Roach. The text includes a dedication in memory of Arlene Cebuliak from her family, printed on the back of the burse. Thomas further describes: “The hexagonal shapes of the text blocks reflect the pattern in the brickwork behind the altar. The Advent star motif includes the diagonal cross of St. Andrew. The curvilinear shapes within the motifs are sympathetic with the curved wooden beams and help to soften the orthogonal nature of the building. Similiarly, a curved lower edge was used for both the pulpit fall and altar frontal. The linen pieces attached to both the frontal the pulpit fall are vintage linen reclaimed from the support another (now decommissioned) altar frontal from Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.” I encourage you to take a close-up look to see how our prayers… your prayers… have been made physically and artistically present in our space.
And having seen our prayers, may you lift your eyes to look around, to look to the horizon, and watch expectantly for God to appear once more.