Light in the Dark
I have never liked basements, especially unfinished ones. They can be dark, musty, and every sound is amplified as it echoes off of the concrete and empty spaces. I will go down into a basement when I need to, but as a child I dreaded having to go by myself. At my grandparents’ house in Colorado, I would brave the basement so that I could go sit and play their piano, but as soon as I was finished, I would race up the stairs as quickly as I could. Something about being down there by myself set me on edge, even though I loved to play down there with my brother and my cousins any other time.
But, there was one basement that I really didn’t like. It was the unfinished basement in one of the houses I lived in growing up. Eventually my dad finished that basement, but before he did, all that was down there were the furnace, water heater, and water softener, and a single stall shower. It was like a horror movie basement. It was noisy as the furnace would fire up, and it echoed like crazy. Needless to say, I never went down there by myself, and fortunately I never needed to.
Until one day when I had walked home after school – I think I was in high school – and my mom called to ask if I would get something out of the basement so that it would be ready when she got home. I opened the door to the top of the stairs, and started to go down. The door, which never really liked to stay open, closed a little bit behind me, and I felt like Kevin McAllister probably felt as he braved the basement to do a load of laundry in the movie Home Alone.
I got down into the basement, walked over to get what my mom had asked for, and the power went out. No kidding. I stood there in the dark, terrified, and I couldn’t see my way back to the stairs. In the darkness, I couldn’t see the little bit of light coming through the basement window. I couldn’t see how to get to the stairs. I was stuck. My eyes adjusted a little bit, and I tried to feel my way through the darkness to a wall, but eventually the lights came back on, and I ran up the stairs as quickly as I could.
Advent – this season of waiting – takes place as we come to the darkest point of the year. Every day we lose a little more light. We feel tired earlier, and have a harder time getting out of bed in the morning. Sometimes the darkness comes so early that it takes us by surprise, even though we know this is how the month of December is – progressively darker every day. Each week, we light another candle; we add light to our wreath as we head toward the day with the least amount of light. We eagerly await the night when all candles are lit, our season of waiting is over, and the days get longer and brighter.
Isaiah 60 begins with this beloved verse: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Your light has come. We know this is true in the person of Jesus. We know that two thousand years ago, our light did come, and the truth of his coming continues to have an impact on us here and now. But, on the dark nights when the light seems far away, it is hard for us to see the light and to feel embraced in its warmth. In these difficult times when the light of Christ seems far away, sometimes all we can see is the darkness. And in that darkness, we can feel alone and afraid.
We know the truth of verse 1 – that the light has come – but on far too many days,we live the present reality of verse 2: “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” We don’t even need to name what’s been happening in the news, or in our lives, or in the world because each of us knows what it is like to be covered in darkness. The darkness we experience is sometimes so thick that we feel immobilized by it. And we ask God where the light is.We plead for just a little light to see by.
The second part of verse 2 speaks this promise into the darkness we experience: “but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” The light has come, the darkness will cover us, but we are not left alone in it. The glory of the Lord will appear over us, and while it might seem like we are waiting in darkness for an eternity, we look with hope for the little bits of light that get in through the brokenness.
Advent is a time of tension and a time of longing. We often talk about the waiting of Advent, but we don’t always talk about what it is we are waiting for. The word “advent” means “coming,” and most often we think about waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ. We are waiting to celebrate, but our celebrations are merely a remembrance of something that has already happened. Jesus has already come, and we aren’t really waiting for him to be born a second time.
But even though Jesus has already come, we are waiting for him to return again. We are waiting for his second advent, his second coming, in which all the longing, all the heartbreak, all the suffering, and darkness, and pain will finally be overcome by the light that cannot be defeated by the darkness.
Until that day, we live in between the two comings of Christ – his birth and his return – and sometimes we find ourselves overwhelmed by the darkness and pain in the world, and in our own lives.
We struggle, we long, we try our best to trust, but sometimes it seems as though the brokenness is too much to overcome.
About a week ago, as we were decorating the church, and as we were moving things around, one of the Advent candles got broken – the one meant to symbolize love. It split right in half. Thanks to some quick thinking on the part of a few awesome people, the candle was able to be melted back together. It looks almost as good as new, but the crack is visible and the candle leans just a little bit now as a reminder that it isn’t exactly how it used to be.
I can’t think of any better symbol for Advent than a broken love candle shining brightly into the darkness. Things aren’t as they should be, but hope is not lost. The darkness is strong, and sometimes it overwhelms, but it will not have the victory. The pain stands in stark contrast to the Norman-Rockwell Christmas celebrations we all want to have, but one day all will be redeemed and made new, and every tear will be dried from our eyes. Until that time, we shine our broken candles of love as brightly as we can until that day when our brokenness will finally be made whole.
Leonard Cohen once wrote this: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
This is where we stand as a church, in the middle of the two comings of Jesus, as little lights in the darkness, pointing others toward the future where all will be redeemed. Separately, our lights might seem small, but together we see more of the picture of what things will be like when the true light once again comes into the world, this time making clear that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5, 9).
Until that time we cling to hope, even when hope doesn’t seem like enough. We hope, looking to the love of God to sustain us. We shine the small, flickering, uncertain lights we have, trusting that God’s light will shine through us, even when we aren’t sure we can do any of it on our own.
We keep on holding up “a clear picture of our current reality against God’s preferred future,” as Rev. Becky Town once wrote. We aren’t oblivious. We haven’t closed our eyes to the darkness and brokenness but, as the church, we are called to hold up not only a clear picture of the way things currently are, but also a picture of how God wants things to be. We are guaranteed to do so imperfectly, but there’s abundant forgiveness and love when we do.
As Henri Nouwen once observed, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly.” We may love poorly with the little lights we each carry, but the day will come when we will experience fully the joy of God’s love and light. Until then, we strain our eyes to see the light through the cracks.
This week, I came across the words of an anonymous Chinese poem that had been set to the tune “Divinum Mysterium” (often sung with the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), and I was so deeply moved by the words. This song is my prayer that somehow, someway, in the midst of darkness that seems unrelenting, that we will find hope in the relentless love of God.
In a deep unbounded darkness
Long before the first light shone
You, O God, beyond all merit
Worked a wonder faith makes known:
In your mercy, in your mercy
You embraced us as your own
Evermore and evermore