Creator of the stars of night, your people’s everlasting light. O Christ, Redeemer of us all, we pray you hear us when we call.
That petition, from the hymn we just sang, is translated from an ancient Latin hymn written in the ninth century. Originally, it was written to be sung in the evening, at the vesper hinge when day leans into night.
It’s very gloomy outside today, and our readings are a little gloomy too. [Near dark.] So, it must it be the first Sunday of Advent: a day when we approach the dark. And be forewarned: in our gospel, from the angle Jesus gives us, There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
In those words, you don’t hear the sweet hinge of ordinary sunlight leaning into ordinary starlight. Instead you hear the Son of Man arriving with a roar on clouds of glory to upend your world. Advent begins with this expansive cosmic faraway vision and aims you eventually toward the fragile intimacy of one holy family on the ground where you live.
Years ago, I used to go outside and sit in the dark after dinner. I’d stare into the sky and feel how small I was in the scheme of things. There’s nothing like a night sky (especially when it’s lit up with stars) to make you feel small.
I was somebody who’d always relied on the idea that God was my friend, a god who pretty much shared my ideas about how life ought to play out. And yet one day, I came to the end of that belief. What happened was my life wasn’t turning out like I wanted it to.
Stars seemed so little moved by my worries. I sensed in their faraway presence the transcendence of a god in no hurry to do my bidding. Feeling powerless and alone, I turned away from the stars and stared instead into the glassy windows of my own house.
Every night those windows were full of houselight, a nearer kind of light than starlight, illuminating a family I loved, and love, with all my heart: children I’d never have the power to save from pain or trouble or loss. Like me – like you, like every human being – they were, as indeed they are, made for love, and blessed by God with hearts that can and will be broken.
Slowly – more slowly than I wanted – under the cold distance of starlight, God led me back into houselight.
I prayed that the One who came to save us would dwell with us come what may, that there would always be light enough to see our way through to love. I said all the prayers of protection I knew, and then I gathered my heart and did what we all do on faith: I went back into the ruined house of my own life. And God was there.
Hidden away in Advent is the reality that the dark is a necessary gift. In it, by it, and through it, we come to seek the light of God.
The great British rocker Richard Thompson wrote a beautiful song called The Dimming of the Day. It’s a love song, really, a song about coming home at the end of the day. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but when I come home in winter and it’s dark already – when you’re going home and it’s your headlights you see – there’s something really lovely about that, and [in it] I kind of can’t wait to get home, to the warmth of houselight, you know, to the warmth of home. There’s some of that same feeling in play in this song by Thompson.
Like so many love songs, it’s can also be about God and the tender hold God has on us. It goes like this: This old house is falling down around my ears. I’m drowning in a river of my tears. When all my will is gone, you hold me sway. I need you at the dimming of the day. You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide. You know just where I keep my better side. What days have come to keep us far apart? A broken promise or a broken heart. Now all the bony birds have wheeled away. I need you at the dimming of the day.
In Advent you meet God there. At the dimming of the day. It’s where Advent begins: at the close of another year, in the dark about what lies ahead, at the end of time as you know it, in the vulnerability of wondering what next – essentially, in a state of wonder.
And since we live in the northern hemisphere, it’s our good fortune Advent also begins in winter when the days grow shorter. The first Sunday of Advent pulls you into the cover of night in order to reset your life and remind you how thoroughly you rely on the incoming yet abiding presence of God.
So, this year, when I hear Jesus say there will be signs in the heavens to distress and confuse me, I want to hear the gift of that confusion. I want to believe the dark – overtaking my clocks and lights, overtaking my navigation apps and plans – is actually a good thing. I want to hear God pulling me like the tide, and pulling you, toward a more elemental place, for a moment in the dark, forsaking the oh-so-bright chaos of my own life.
When Barbara Brown Taylor sat down to write a book on Light, on our efforts to hold onto it, she named it Learning to Walk in the Dark. The idea is we’ve forgotten how to do that. When I do that, I often step on the dog.
Her book suggested we’re so addicted to our lights switches, to the sense of our own power, we’ve forgotten the gift of being in the dark. Forgotten how every life, like every seed, like every good gift from God, begins in the dark.
Faith happens in the dark. Forgiveness begins with taking a risk in a dark place.
It’s what Advent wants to teach you: how to live in the dark of not knowing everything, with God at your back as you fumble your way toward a manger in order to receive the light of the world.
And here’s the thing: seasons of advent are seasons of beginning again. They’re not confined to the Church Calendar: they can happen to you anytime [at an unexpected hour]. They’re not confined to calendars or watches any more than stars are timed by the watch you wear. Advent comes whenever you find yourself, whether by choice or against your will, in the dark. And there, God is always beginning again, a creator of the stars of night.
The light of God is both far away, coming at an unexpected hour, and near at hand, blessing you with light enough to live by.
This year, and every year, the season of Advent invites you to go outside at night.
I make this invitation every year at Advent: go outside tonight (if it’s not raining), and feel the cold. Take in the distant beauty of the sky. And don’t forget to turn your eyes on the warm gift of houselight. Say prayers for those who dwell with you, at home or in memory. And pray for those who struggle in the dark and in the cold, whether at home or on the road.
O Christ, Redeemer of us all, we pray you hear us when we call.