The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.– Psalm 27:1, 14The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.– John 1:9
Thousands of years ago, during this cold, darkening season, Germanic people wove evergreen wreaths to express hope in life’s ability to withstand winter and be made new in springtime. These green living circles symbolized the constant cycles of life, and they decorated them with lit candles during the dark, frozen December days. This was their expression of hope that long winter nights would not last forever, but warmth and the sun-filled days of Spring would return once more.
In Scandinavia during the long dark nights, ancient worshipers removed their wagon wheels and placed lit candles upon them. In this way they beseeched the god of light to turn the wheel of the earth back again towards the sun, to lengthen the days and restore warmth again to the earth.
These ancient communities of northern Europe knew just how dark darkness could be – how cold, how lifeless. The coming of the solstice contained the promise that darkness would not last forever – light and life were coming tangibly back to the world.
It is no surprise that in the first centuries Western Europeans began to celebrate Christ’s birth during this same season. Centuries of reflection on the darkness of early winter coupled with the certainty of hope in light and life breaking through found their fulfillment when the true light that gives light to everyone came into the world. The redeeming light celebrated at the solstice became Christ, God-with-us, along with the return of the sun. These hopeful, expectant weeks of waiting in darkness found new significance for the community of believers as the season of Advent.
Today, in the darkness of early winter, the Christmas season still begins with waiting, with hoping. I carefully place candles on a wheel of evergreen boughs and light one each Sunday of Advent with my children. It is Christ we are waiting for. Even though the reality of history is that the Messiah has come, and therefore he is here now and always, within the celebration of Advent he is coming and therefore we are waiting. We are waiting for Christ, for Emmanuel, for God-With-Us. During these weeks there is a tangible sense of entering, of expecting. There are mysterious and majestic things to ponder and simply speaking or hearing them will not do – the message must sink down deep into our hearts, our minds, our choices, our songs, and our dreams.
In this wintertime season the world is covered in darkness and lifelessness. No one needs to be convinced that something is off kilter in our lives, our families, our communities. We know how dark darkness can be. There is pain and suffering, we are hurt by others and hurt others in turn. The Good News that we are straining to hear during this Advent season is found in a newborn baby, but it is neither weak nor helpless. This Good News, this light that has come into darkness, has the strength of God grafting us into his family, of sending neither a sign nor a prophet but coming himself, as one of us. There is no darkness past, present, or future that can hold a candle to this light.
Praise be to God for his indescribable Gift.