Advent, the season of waiting and preparation before the high feast of Christmas, is a chance to regain spiritual sanity, and create fresh and healthier rhythms personally and as a family and as churches.
These have been dark days in 2020, even in the light of spring and summer. Those spared great personal suffering and pain haven’t lived under such ominous clouds since the aftermath of 9/11. And the anxieties of a slow-moving pandemic, in a highly contentious election year, has cast a longer, and perhaps darker, shadow than even those grave days.
Now we come to the cusp of December — and winter. Dark days get darker. And Advent begins today, not a day too soon, just in time to declare the message we too often ignore: in the very darkest of days, the true light shines out all the brighter.
Advent, the season of waiting and preparation before the high feast of Christmas, is a chance to regain spiritual sanity, and create fresh and healthier rhythms personally and as a family and as churches. As we enter the six darkest weeks of the year in this hemisphere, we will pivot midway to mark the greatest and brightest turning point in all history: the birth of Christ. And perhaps this Advent will begin restoring what the locusts have taken this year.
Dwelling in Darkness
Here at the beginning of Advent 2020, it’s good to know that the real Christmas doesn’t require all to be calm and bright. Emphatically, all was not calm, and all was not bright, that first Christmas. And have we not come to learn, in our own lives, that those Christmases when all has seemed calm and bright didn’t actually prove to be the best ones?
The light of Christ’s first Advent dawned in days of deep darkness. Zechariah prophesied of his coming “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78–79). That’s where God’s people found themselves that first Christmas: sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. Matthew 4:16 (echoing Isaiah 42) captures that darkness, and the inbreaking of light, as well as any of our favorite Advent readings:
The people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.
They dwelled in darkness as they awaited his first advent. Jesus didn’t come to a world already alight with comfort and joy. He came to bring peace to a world at war. He came to bring true comfort to a world distressed. He came to announce good news of great joy to those drowning in a sea of sorrows. He came as light, shining in the darkness.
Two millennia later, it’s easy to overlook just how dark those days were, and how shadowy the details of his arrival: the scandal of an unwed mother with child; the shock Joseph faced to find her pregnant; the suspicions and judgments against her in the small town of Nazareth, where word would spread quicker than fire; an inconvenient and arduous journey to Bethlehem, with Mary at full term; not even modest accommodations while she labored; the indignity of a manger. Christmas first came when and how our race would have least expected it.