I read a fabulous essay this past weekend about the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day. (See essay here - https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html)
What struck me most was the author's gentle encouragement, before we break out into our quintessential American frenetic celebration, "first to pause and look, with complete honesty, at the darkness."
To observe Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.
Too many of us see the four weeks before Christmas Day as merely an opportunity to buy gifts, decorate, attend parties and prepare for family gatherings. All good things.
But what if that is ALL we do?
What if - due to perceived time constraints - we simply feel we cannot slow down long enough to look around and face our reality?
Even more likely, what if we refuse to face the darkness - within and without - because it is frankly too painful to face? Because it makes us feel too much existential angst?
If we refuse to face the darkness, I believe, as does the author of this essay, that our celebration of what Christmas stands for, the event it celebrates, is dramatically diminished. There is a falsity to it. A fakeness. It becomes merely a shallow dip into overindulgent materialism and phony merriment.
There is much darkness all around ... hungry refugees, war, political antagonism, climate catastrophe, family estrangement, disease, denial, corruption.
There is much darkness within ... arrogance, selfishness, greed, lust, meanness, hoarding, a coarseness toward the poor, toward our neighbor, toward those we love.
I know it may seem morose to ponder these things. I get it. Yet the invitation this challenging essay offers compels me to sit in my own darkness for a season and to ponder my powerless over it; to ponder my powerlessness over the darkness all around me.
I need to stare all the darkness squarely in the face.
Only then will my soul "exceedingly rejoice" when Christmas Day breaks afresh.
Jesus, the light of the world, the only light strong enough to defeat the darkness without and the darkness within ... Jesus is born.