Watch for the Light


When I was a boy I had a sleepover with my cousin Mark, who lived on a farm about twenty miles from my town. I don’t remember how old I was but I will never forget the deep anxiety that settled over me when Mark and I hopped into our bunk beds and my aunt Emogene turned out the light. It was not just dark, it was frighteningly black. Outside my bedroom window at home there was a corner streetlamp and the light from all the houses along Pine Street. Out here on the farm there was nothing. I could not see my hand in front of my face.

It was terror at first and I was embarrassed in front of my older cousin, who already regarded city kids as wimps. But as I stared down the darkness it began to lift. Gradually my eyes adjusted and I began to see a glow—perhaps the stars faintly glimmered, perhaps a light from a distant barn reached me, but I could make out images and forms. I was going to be all right.

Advent assures us that we don’t need to be afraid of the dark. As the earth rolls nearer the December solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, darkness is falling and the church gives us (at least at the start) only one measly purple candle. Notice that the response to our unease is not to hit the klieg lights but to give us one flame to hold onto in the darkness. In this way Advent says, You can trust the darkness. Don’t be afraid. Sit quietly. Watch for the Light.

In the same way that death and life are inseparable and have no meaning apart from one another, darkness and light are inseparable. We run from the shadows that fall around us, all the unknowns, the looming threats that cloud our sunny tomorrows. But when we run pell mell for the light we are blinded by its glare. What we need is patience, to sit in the gloaming and let our eyes develop that deeper capacity for sight. After a while, like an eagle we can spot a dim ray of dawn almost before it breaks over the horizon, but only because our vision has been sharpened, intensified in the darkness.

A remarkable thing happens when we trust the blackout, whatever that is in our lives. We feel enormous power and authority. The words of Psalm 139 come startlingly true. “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.” No eclipse can alarm us. No encroaching shadow can send us into fits of fear. We have spiritual night vision! No matter how dim the growing Light of Life, we can spot it, we can trust it.

This Advent, trust these words of St. Francis: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

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