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Reflection in a Season of Darkness

Jen Bloesch
Sun, Dec 03

Text: Mark 13: 24-37

If you ask people how they feel about winter, I’ve found that you get two general responses. First, you get sporty kind of people who love winter because it means they can get back on their boots, on their ice skates, on their snowshoes, and on their skis. We have a few of those families in this congregation, and though I won’t point them out, I think you know who they are.

So you have the winter sports enthusiasts, and then you have, pretty much everyone else. You ask this second group how they feel about winter, and they tend to let out a groan. Ugh… Everyone, if you are a winter hater, I want to hear a little sigh. I say winter, and you respond with— “Ugh…” They hate winter because it’s cold and it’s dark. Oh, and did I mention that it’s cold and dark? In the winter, people’s bones start creaking and their skin starts chafing, and my God, you have to carry around six layers of clothes everywhere you go. People miss the summer when they can stay out late, soak in the sun, go to outdoor festivals on the weekend, and enjoy the fruits of nature. Winter just doesn’t have the same appeal. This is pretty understandable, because let’s face it, winter is a bit uncomfortable and unpleasant. It’s a difficult season to love.

Yet it seems that not only is it just that winter is a difficult season to love, but the dark and the cold really affect people. The loss of sunlight actually impacts people’s mood. It’s a lot of time to be sitting inside and not absorbing any vitamin D. The long hours of darkness can be lonely, scary, and depressing. Because it’s dark for about half of the year, the winter ends up feeling so long.

Winter requires a bit of emotional and spiritual endurance. I think that’s why I hear so many people say about winter, “Well, I endure.” “Well, I survive.” “Well, I just hole in and wish for summer again.” Because winter is the season of death, of darkness, of isolation, and of quiet, it’s no surprise we endure. But sometimes I wonder, is endurance really the right attitude? Isn’t there something beautiful to be said about that which is difficult and unpleasant? Isn’t there something productive to be done during this time? Can’t we find God in the darkness?

My answer to those questions is a resounding Yes! For the same reasons we need death so that new life may grow, for the same reasons we need sadness to understand joy, so too do we need winter to experience the fullness of summer. From a purely ecological standpoint, here in New England, we need a solid winter so that the summer is not overrun by bugs and so the trees do not become subject to disease. In our spiritual lives, too, we can utilize winter to germinate the fruits of the spirit so they may have their fullest expression at other times of the year.

You may be catching on at this point that I am referring to winter not only as a natural season, but as a season of the soul that has its own essence and purpose that is necessary and beautiful. Winter can be a very introverted season because it is a time to be inside. Because we literally do not go outside as often, we have to look to our interior spaces for warmth, for comfort, and for joy. We decorate our house with lights, we turn on the fireplace, we bundle up in sweaters, and we cook warm meals. We create an environment in which we can rest more peacefully on this inside.

In similar fashion, winter is a time to be inside of ourselves, to explore our interior worlds and reflect. Our lives can be so busy and chaotic, especially in the Christmas season. How often do we take the time to sit and reflect on our year, our hopes and failures, our grief and our gratitude? It’s easy to pass by our inner lives, especially when that inner world is filled with painful feelings. Yet, we need that time of reflection, to process what has happened in our lives and to foster the inner joy, and peace, and strength we need to get through another year. Symbolically, winter is a season that offers us the quiet and solitude we need to turn inwards and to clear the dead foliage and to plant the seeds that will sprout in our hearts. Winter offers us the spiritual virtue of meditation and of finding the light within during a season of dark.

As you know, today is the first day of Advent, a special time in the Christian calendar in which we begin preparing for the arrival of our Savior in the form of an infant. During Advent, Christians spend time reflecting on the darkness of the world and through contemplation and prayer, cultivate hope, peace, joy, and love. In so many ways, the spiritual lessons of Advent resonate with those of winter, and in my opinion, it’s absolutely wonderful when the natural calendar and the Christian calendar orient our souls in such resonant ways.

Wonderful as it may me, the similarities might not be coincidental, however. Have you wondered how it is that Jesus’ birth coincides so closely with the darkest night of the year? Well, there are some theories about this. Are you ready for a little church history? One theory, called the History of Religions Hypothesis suggests that Christians co-opted a pagan holiday called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or in translation, the Day of the Birth of the Sun God. This pagan holiday marked the winter solstice, when the days started getting longer, and the sun conquered darkness once again. The theory goes that Christians adopted this feast day and reinterpreted it to be the birth of a different kind of light in the world, the light of Christ. In English it makes for a wonderful pun—the birth of the Sun, and the birth of the Son, but ultimately in both cases, the symbolism centers around the coming of the light after the darkness.

Now, this is just one theory amongst a small handful, and it is disputed, but it makes the day no less symbolically fitting. Just as the world seems to keep getting darker and darker, a new life is brought into the world. That life is not just any life, it is the light to overcome all darkness.

This is not something to be taken lightly, and indeed we Christians do not take it lightly. We have Advent, which helps us enter into that spiritual season of darkness before the light. Let’s do one more piece of Christian history. The celebration of Advent came centuries after Christians had already been celebrating Christmas. It is thought that Advent started in Gaul in the late 4th century as a preparatory period before Epiphany, when Christ is revealed as God’s son through his baptism. Advent became established as a period of fasting by Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, and by the 6th century, it was made official by Rome. As late as the 10th and 11th centuries, Advent became a period of preparation for the birth of Christ and expectation of the Second Coming. It can have penitential overtones, as fasting was a symbolic action of repentance and cleansing.

In today’s Christian life, Advent continues to be a period of spiritual preparation, carrying those themes of penitence and expectation. This is no passive time of the year. In a few weeks, God is about to do something amazing in the world. God is about to bring the light in the form of a humble infant, who will spread peace and love and be our source of hope and joy. And we must be ready. We must turn inwards in self-reflection to reconcile with darkness and death and to arrange our own mangers in which we are truly ready to receive the blessing of new life.

Especially on this First Sunday of Advent, the attitude of preparation is particularly important. We are reminded on this day to stay awake and be watchful for the coming of the light. Mark is especially provocative in this way. In the scripture we heard today, Mark predicts the day when Jesus will return and the world as we know it will cease to be. The world will be shrouded in utter darkness just before it bursts forth with the magnificent light of God, who will come to redeem the world once and for all. Mark stresses that we must stay awake for this hour when Jesus will come again. While this passage is meant to be dramatic because it is apocalyptic, ultimately, I think Mark is communicating that in waiting, we are not to be passive and lethargic. God will do God’s part in bringing light to the world, but we must also do our part, which is to ready our hearts so that we, too, will be agents of light when the light is brought to the world.

This is all to say that these four weeks before Christmas are an important time of the year. Yes, they are cold and they are dark, and they’re fraught with holiday stress, but don’t let these precious weeks slip by from underneath you. In the dark, you are offered this rare and precious opportunity to turn inwards, to undergo a process of internal preparation for the next season of light, blessing, and new life. Advent is that time when we transform death to life. The leaves have fallen, the animals have gone into hibernation, and the sun slips away day by day. The world has in effect died, and we are in that period of limbo between a year that has passed and a year that is yet to come. The question is, what will we do with that holy transition?

One fun factoid about Advent is that in the Christian calendar, Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year. I don’t know if you knew this already, but this was news to me, and it blew my mind. The Christian calendar doesn’t start on Christmas, and it certainly doesn’t start on January 1st like our secular year. Instead, it begins on the first Sunday of Advent. That means that the beginning comes before the light enters the world. Like the waters of the deep in Genesis before God spoke light into existence. Friends, we are at the beginning of Christian time, before light has broken forth. When our calendar begins in Advent and not at Christmas, it means that our beginning is while Christ is still being formed in the womb, in the darkness, the darkness that nurtures the light. In Advent, so are we in the womb, in that limbo place between nothingness and life, in that time when becoming sufficiently prepared for birth means everything.

My hope for each of you in this season of Advent, is that it is not just a test of endurance for you. Instead, see this time as a precious opportunity to take some time for quiet and reflection, and allow yourself to be formed in the nurturing waters of darkness. Listen for the lessons the past year has given to you. Let some old selves die and give birth to new selves. Plant seeds of hope in your heart. Allow your soul to rest with peace so that you may be more receptive to God when God lights up in you. Whatever it means for you to prepare for the coming of the light, do that, because the birth of the sun is coming. It may be dark now, but watch for the light, because it will burst forth any day now.

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