The Shadows of Advent

We are entering what is known in our contemporary culture as the Christmas season. This is in many ways a misnomer, however. Ecclesiastically, the time known as Christmas begins Christmas Day and lasts the next twelve days. Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s coming, his first coming in Bethlehem a little over two thousand years ago, as well as his second coming (though this one tends to slip into the background). However the period leading up to Christmas, starting on the fourth Sunday prior and ending Christmas Eve, is called Advent. Advent anticipates Christmas, it commemorates the fact that God’s people were longingly awaiting their coming Messiah in spiritual darkness. We also await our Messiah… we await his return, whereupon he will expel the darkness (sin, death, and Satan) from this world once and for all.

When I was preparing my posts for Halloween, a pastor friend commented that Halloween is really very similar to Advent. In many ways, he is exactly right. Halloween, reflecting on the fact that evil exists in the world, prepares us for the celebration of God’s good work through and preservation of the saints (the Church) the next day, the Feast of All Saints Day. Likewise, Advent reflects on the longing in a broken state, waiting for the One who will bring restoration. This is not to say that we do not need to speak of the Nativity nor the Second Coming during Advent… anything but. It would be like commemorating Lent without looking toward the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. But Advent sees these events in light of our current state, awaiting Christ’s return, and the state of the world Christ was born into in that cold stable, on a dark night, in a land ravaged by totalitarian governments and spiritual brokenness. He came into the dark world as a light, something we can remember each time we light the four Advent candles these four Sunday nights before Christmas.

For this reason, many of my favorite songs of the season are darker in tone than those played most. They reflect the very real darkness that Jesus Christ was born into in that lowly creche. Pieces like “Veiled in Darkness” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” whisper the birth of a savior into a fearsome world, while the minor-keyed 4th century hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” announces the triumph of Christ over all things by his incarnation. A few projects in later years have sought to bring some of the more Advent-toned songs into the light, however. Bifrost Arts’ 2009 album Salvation Is Created is one of the primary examples of this. As I described in my initial review of the project,

This is a dark album, no question. A haunting melancholy permeates the entire piece. This is not an upbeat album glistening with chimes, warm strings, and sleigh bells.  A large percentage of these songs are in a minor key.  The overall atmosphere has a certain loneliness about it.  Perhaps this is a Christmas album like the first Christmas night was, cold and lonesome, but filled with hope.  These song emit a radiant hopefulness in the mist of darkness.  Not unlike our state here on earth.  We are awaiting Christ’s return.  The “already/not yet” tension is in full force.  We are in a fallen world, but living with the hope of the New Creation coming with our Lord.

This, along with a handful of other projects, has really brought back the focus of Advent that I think has been lost, especially in Evangelical Protestantism, for years. To get a full picture of Advent and the true meaning of Christmas, our art, our music, our commemoration, needs to acknowledge the world Christ was born into… and why he came to save it. One of my favorite Advent hymns reflects the longing that the Jews of old had for the Messiah and the longing we still express for him:

Veiled in darkness Judah lay,
Waiting for the promised day,
While across the shadowy night
Streamed a flood of glorious light,
Heav’nly voices chanting then,
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Still the earth in darkness lies.
Up from death’s dark vale arise
Voices of a world in grief,
Prayers of men who seek relief:
Now our darkness pierce again,
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Light of light, we humbly pray,
Shine upon Thy world today;
Break the gloom of our dark night,
Fill our souls with love and light,
Send Thy blessèd Word again,
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

– “Veiled in Darkness Judah Lay,” Lyrics by Douglas Rights, 1915; Traditional melody by Jo­hann G. Eb­e­ling, 1666.

(Illustration: Georges de la Tour, St. Joseph the Carpenter [detail])