“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…”
And so the advent of Advent is borne on language of light and hope, of goodness revealed, of darkness locked away.
Light reveals our way, exposes hidden things and ends uncertainty. Sunlight brings warmth and powers photosynthesis. The light of a candle illumes a safe path to bed and the fire that births it cauterises and disinfects. The coming of light is to be celebrated, to be worked towards and to be hoped for.
And darkness? Darkness where the predator waits, where dirt and grime accumulate unnoticed and where cold and death hold their court; darkness will be extinguished by the light.
Light is good, darkness is bad. An easy binary to hang a flurry of metaphors on. A world built on such a binary gives us easy answers and an honest goal of eliminating the dark altogether – to walk into perpetual light.
But what if our world (and the next!?) is more complicated than this easy binary, or the false idol of endless day?
What if God created the dark to be equally as good and necessary as light. What if light can harm or obscure or kill?
What if the prophets, poets and storytellers of thousands of years ago in a place much closer to the equator could not conceive of a midnight sun or Northern Lights? What if they inhabited a world devoid of headache inducing fluorescent lights in offices or Floodlights simulating perpetual daylight so that capitalist franchise owners can exploit sportsmen and sportswomen and their fans to make money?
Anyone who has had high beam car headlights flashed at them knows that light can cause pain and can blind. Light can at times be harsh and cold and stark. It can create false hard lines and a bland homogoneity that dispenses with distinctiveness, diversity or difference . And consider that the brightness of day deprives us of a view of the stars, obscuring our place in the wider universe.
In contrast, darkness is comfort and relief from pain. It’s the protection and nurturing of the womb; it’s the night that enables sleep; it’s the warmth of a hug that enfolds every part of you so that you can’t see the horrors of the world, only feel the love of a physical presence. The dark depths of the ocean harbours delicate, beautiful and vital marine life that would be fried in an instant by the harsh light of day. Only in darkness when the veil of daylight is removed can we orient ourselves by the constant Pole Star and her handmaids of the Milky Way. And without the darkness of the womb or the tomb, the story of Jesus is meaningless.
Surely we can find a balance. We can be honest with ourselves and each other in acknowledging both the virtues and failings of Darkness and Light and find a place of balance. Balance by embracing Rhythm, Ritual and Routine; balance by embracing the spectrum – the explosion of Colour that is the diversity of God.
Rhythm and Ritual
Balance shouldn’t be about a perpetual compromise; a constant Dusk or dawn (although dusk and dawn have their place); the scales teetering straight, with neither one side up or down. It’s about the cycle, the wheel of the year, the see-saw going up and down. It’s about the idea that perpetual day would be as hellish as perpetual night. That night and darkness are as good and essential as day and light.
And this year haven’t we discovered the mental and emotional pain of monotony, the damage that is caused by the loss of the rhythms of home, work and play. Some of us have been stuck in our houses for months, no visitors, no routine of going out to work then returning home, no festivals or family gatherings. Others of us designated “key workers” have maintained at least a home to work routine, but it’s felt like life has become all work. Without the routine of Choir, Work, Church, home we have become set adrift. Without the Soirees for Easter, Birthdays and Bonfire it’s all just … the same. And that’s not only dull, but more significantly it’s disorienting and disconnecting. We started all this in Lent… and it feels like Lent never ended. Without wax and wane, without the tide going in and out, without the marking of the seasons, we lose a part of our humanity and a connection with the image of God within us.
For God made both day and night and called both good. They set the nature of seeds that must wait in the dark of the earth, then embrace the sunshine as the flowers of spring and summer. They set the moon in the sky to wax and wane and cause the ebb and flow of tides. And They rested on the seventh day, not because They needed to but because They wanted to. It was also to set an example for us who do need it. The lesson of balance for us in this is that just being one thing isn’t in our nature, nor is it in the nature of the world we inhabit and it most certainly isn’t in the nature of the God who made us.
We aren’t made for monotony, or perpetual daytime. We are made for Rhythm and Ritual and Routine. For sleep and waking; for festivals and workdays; for co-operation and solitude; for star-gazing and sun-bathing. For the wheel to turn without resting too long on one moment, lest we choke each other, ourselves and our world.
The Colour of God
In a binary world, a world of the brightest whitest piercingly painful light vs the dominating suffocating emptiness of utter darkness, both options remove colour and distinctiveness. Both are flat and demanding and cold. Both are demands for absolutism, no room for questions or difference or for the individual. I genuinely ask you if you really believe that this is what Jesus came for? That the Light He represents is this utter squashing of you into an undifferentiated mould, your pains and pleasures irrelevant to the all dominating light? Is this really the good news that has burned around the world and revolutionised lives?
The world is not binary, though fundamentalists would wish it so.
The rosy fingers of dawn are but motes of colour coming back into our lives daily. The golden sunsets of the receding light bring different spectra of colour -just because we can’t see them because we’re a daytime predator doesn’t mean they’re not there.
And when we truly embrace the wheel of the year, holding both day and night in equal esteem, giving honour to all four seasons, we see that balance isn’t the muddy gray of the balance between two absolutes, but it’s seeing every nuance of colour exploding across our lives. It’s rosy dawns and golden sunsets; it’s the russets of autumn and the lilacs of spring; it’s emerging from the cave to see greens and blues and yellows previously unimagined.
We’re not meant to live in the gray, in mushy compromise. We’re called to live every facet of life. Life in its fullness you might say. And not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us. The coming of the Light at advent isn’t about and all consuming dominant floodlight blinding and making everyone the same. Just as salt in the right proportions makes food taste better by making it more itself, so the Light we celebrate at Advent, Christmas and Easter is a light that makes us better by bringing us back to our true selves. It’s a full spectrum of colour, showing up each individual in their own unique goodness that flows from the source of all goodness. It’s a light that shows up my kindness as a different colour than your kindness. In the advent light, Jack’s gentleness is a different colour than Jill’s; Ahmed’s patience is different to David’s; Abigail’s Joy is a vastly different colour to Victoria’s.
So when I think of the Angels bursting out of the night, making shepherds afraid – it’s an orgasm of colour those poor shepherds had never imagined or seen. Every Angel a different point on the spectrum. Purples off the charts. Reds across the board. Greens so alive they could taste them.
And when I think of Jesus transfigured on a mount in front of three friends – it’s a rainbow never before seen springing from the source of light and dark.
And when I think of the conqueror of Death resting in the dark of a tomb for moments before exploding out into daylight – it is an explosion of colour – every facet of humanity – Life in its fullness.
“The people walking in gray torpor have seen a great Rainbow…”