My favorite season of the year is approaching. Setting out familiar symbols puts me in the mood for a time of joyous expectation. Advent is about to begin.
Years ago I started a practice of beginning each day in Advent with natural light. Since I generally rise an hour or so before dawn, this means making my way downstairs in the dark and fumbling around for a fire starter. Then I light a candle on the Advent wreath. Its warm glow illuminates the room and creates a mood that lingers well into the morning. As the weeks wear on, the light accumulates as more candles are lit. All of it culminates with the bright feast of Christmas.
This Advent I am offering a retreat on the Infancy Narratives, so I have been immersed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each provides an entirely different picture of that long-ago time. Luke’s portrait includes angels proclaiming astounding news to a young maiden and to shepherds in a field. It is filled with wonder, light, and exclamations of praise from expectants parents, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zacharias. Matthew paints his story with darker hues. Joseph takes center stage as he is awoken from sleep to be told where to go and what to do in order to take his part in this mysterious story of redemption. Herod’s bloody rampage is shocking even by today’s standards of violence and brings into focus the dangerous times into which Jesus was born.
John’s Gospel begins in different fashion. There is no manger scene, shepherds or wise men following a midnight star. In place of an infancy narrative there is an ancient song extolling Jesus as the incarnate Word of God and light of humanity. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4). Perhaps it is this image that brings such comfort as I ignite the Advent wreath in the early morning darkness. It reminds me of the light that Jesus brings in the midst of all distress and despair, agony and anxiety, confusion and chaos. The great mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote about a vision of God telling her all would be well. This was not a promise of a life without labors, disquiet, or troubles. Rather, God told her, “You will not be overcome” (Showings, 315). Advent’s light is a beacon of hope and a call to trust in the presence of Christ’s love shining in the midst of our darkest days.