Over and over again, for centuries and centuries, people have been celebrating winter holidays, creating and repeating all sorts of rituals and festive reenactments, each one intended to bring a little light, a little hope, to this the darkest time of the year.
If you follow a Christian calendar, today is the second Sunday of Advent; the Advent season being about anticipation, about expectantly waiting for the God who will soon be with us, the baby who will be born among us.
If you are familiar with the Jewish calendar, you know that Hanukkah begins late this year, on December 22. On that Sunday evening the first taper will be lit, followed by seven more, one each day until eight burn brightly together. You also know that Hanukkah is for remembering the story of the tiny band of warriors who took on the empire. And it is about the small amount of oil found in the temple that burned as long as it took for new oil to be consecrated and delivered. Until the day the sacred fuel arrived, the faithful waited in the dark with only the faintest of light. Yet, that faint glimmer was enough. Enough to let them know their hope for a better and brighter tomorrow was not unfounded.
Those who celebrate the cycle of the seasons, the wheel of the year, often burn a yule log at winter solstice. This year that will be on a Saturday evening, December 21. It is customary to start the year’s winter fire with a bit of the log burned at last year’s solstice, and to keep a bit of this year’s log for next year. To do so is a way to keep the circle of the seasons going round and round, all born from a bit of what was to make for what will be.
Let us be resolved not to get too caught up in the hustle and bustle of the winter holiday rush, to buy more and more things. Let us not get taken in by all the light and cheer.
We need the darkness of this the waiting time.
We need time in the dark as time anticipating, time doing what needs to be done to birth what is around the corner–what is about to be, but is not yet.
Advent reminds us that we have to walk through the dark to get to the light. We must endure the time when the flame of life is merely a flicker to reach the time when spring may return, when something new and fresh may be born.
My grandmother was a master gardener. She was so good at tending flowers that she once received an award for creating a new rose. I remember how every spring there was so much color in her yard, color that stayed all summer. Then late every fall she would prune back everything and dig up bulbs and put them in the far corners of the garage, or sometimes even in the freezer. She was fond of saying that all good blooms need a period of darkness. As she made her home in North Florida, so she had to search for dark, cool spots for those bulbs to rest for the “winter.”
If we want a good bloom, a future full of beauty, we need to remember to find the dark, cool places… not just to rest, but to engage with the forces that need to be birthed.
We might think of walking through the dark as a path of spiritual growth, where our new selves are being born again.
And we so need the hope that may be midwifed there in the dark… this season, this year. We need more than just celebrating the long ago birth of a Christ child; more than remembering of the miracles from seasons past.
We need to be preparing ourselves to be the ones who give birth… to be the ones who do what is necessary to allow others to give birth…. We need to do more than listen to stories of transformation; we need to morph/change into something more than we have been.
Barbara Brown Taylor, the former Episcopal priest, now a writer, became more and more uncomfortable with our society’s tendency to associate all that is good with lightness and all that is evil and dangerous with darkness. In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she urges the reader to put aside their fears and anxieties and explore all that The Spirit of Life might teach us “in the dark.”
She tells of the first time she visited a deep cave. Down and down she and her guide go, until they reach the heart of the cave. There she sits in what appears to her to be complete darkness, so dark she can’t even see her own hand. Yet, as her guide had promised, her eyes begin to adjust. And then she sees what she is sure are glowing diamonds. On her way out, she takes one. Back in her hotel room, she is astonished to see that what in the dark was brilliant and beautiful looks now like a dull piece of coal.
In the dark we can see what we otherwise would not.
Below the surface, there are gleaming truths that we cannot see in the bright light. The season of spring will come with its new and vibrant life. Energies that are in infant form now will be in adolescent vigor then. What is lying in the dark now will burst forth, doors will open… passions will flame….
To get to there, to that next season, we must go through what is before us. Now is the time for stillness and appreciation of the dark. Lighting each new candle one by one, while waiting in the faint light, marking the time that is needed for blooms to burst into full color in the warm spring air….