Advent is a season of light and dark. As much as the media and the prevailing spirit of the season tries to frame Christmastime as an endless array of cheer and merriment, there's no getting around the reality of our dark, treacherous, weary world. But it's better that way. The light shines brighter in the dark.
Advent celebrates the moment when true light entered into our dark world. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Is. 9:2).
The baby in Bethlehem was hope, redemption, God with us. Present in the midst of our suffering; familiar with our struggle. Emmanuel.
The baby was a flicker of light that became a flame that swept across the world, illuminating the dark in all corners of creation.
But the darkness persists. The weary world rejoices at Christ our hope. But the world is still weary. The beauty of Advent is that it accepts weariness, even embraces it. It is joy in the midst of weariness. Joy mixed with stress, struggle, pain, lament.
Last Thursday's Advent devotional from the Biola Advent Project illustrates it well. The reflection, "The True Light," was written by art professor Loren Baker, who wrote, "As we journey towards Bethlehem, our joyful anticipation of Christmas is best described by the words of the Reverend Phillip Brooks (1835-1903). May all of our 'hopes and fears' be met in Him tonight." Maja Lisa Engelhardt's painting, "I Am the Light of the World" accompanied Loren's reflection, as did the song "O Gracious Light" by The Brilliance:
O Gracious Light, so pure and bright Dispel the darkness of our hearts That by Your brightness we may know the light
Less than two weeks before his devotional published on the Advent Project website, Loren Baker took his own life.
The Biola community is still in mourning. It's hard to fathom what led such a beloved professor to such a dark place, especially as we read his words about the "joyful anticipation of Christmas" and the "True Light." As president Barry H. Corey wrote in an e-mail to Biola students, staff and faculty following Loren's passing, "While we may never know what prompted [Loren] to make this decision, we know he loved the Lord and are confident of the mercy and grace of God."
Kira and I have been listening to the song "Oh Gracious Light" regularly this week, struggling to reconcile the light and darkness of Loren's final weeks, as we listen to the The Brilliance sing so passionately in petition for the Gracious Light to "dispel the darkness of our hearts." The song is healing; it's more a prayer than a carol, and a prayer that is simultaneously mournful and hopeful, a lament and a thanksgiving.
Such is the nature of Advent. Such is the nature of our "now and not yet" existence. Darkness is all around us, even in our hearts. Sometimes the darkness gets the best of us. Sometimes the light fills our hearts so fully that we feel like we may burst.
Entering into Advent is accepting both realities and posturing ourselves in an expectant mode: waiting for the dark night to give way to dawn's light; for shootings and sickness and suicide to give way to Shalom; for the restless groaning of our hearts to finally find rest.
Advent is about longing, tension, the meantime of life. We light candles, we look at Christmas lights, we carry on… Looking with hope to the Bethlehem star, begging the Gracious Light to rid this world of darkness, once and for all.