The Darkness and Light of Advent

(This is a much-revised version of a post that first appeared last year)

The sun doesn’t shine as bright this time of year, but the malls absolutely glisten. We are entering what is known in our contemporary culture as the “Christmas season.” The next four weeks will be paraded by both the religious and the secular as a time of upbeat songs, brightly colored lights, tinsel, and presents, presents, presents. We will run ourselves silly buying up gifts, gorging ourselves on rich food, and inducing an all-around giddy madness. Then, on December 26th, we inevitably crash. It’s so routine, we might be tempted to think that this is the way December has always been. In the ancient traditions of the Church, however, this time of year has a completely different vibe.

The time traditionally known as Christmas begins on Christmas Day and lasts twelve days. Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s coming, both his first coming in Bethlehem a little over two thousand years ago and his second coming, although the latter sadly 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 darkness. They were awaiting a Messiah to come rescue them. We, too, await our Messiah. We don’t await his first coming but his return. We live in a world “between the times.” Our salvation is accomplished by our Messiah, but the world is still that broken beauty waiting to be made whole once again.

A pastor friend once commented to me that Halloween is really very similar to Advent. It was a fresh and almost astounding thought for me at the time, but I realized that he was 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. Likewise, Advent reflects on the longing for a savior in a broken state, waiting for the One who will bring restoration.

All this is not to say that we do not need to speak of the Nativity nor the Second Coming during Advent. Anything but that! It would be like commemorating Lent without looking toward Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. However, Advent rightly sees these events in light of our current state: longing. As Bobby Gilles and Sojourn Pastor Daniel Montgomery recently wrote, “While ‘Christmas season’ is often marked by greed, gluttony, and (if you’re lucky) a few warm fuzzy feelings as you stand under the mistletoe or drink hot cocoa by the fire, Advent stirs our hearts for the return of the king.” Christ came once into the dark world as a light, and he will return to the world as a light that expels the darkness, something we can remember each time we light the Advent candles.

For these reasons, many of my favorite songs of the season are darker in tone than those played most often. They reflect the very real darkness that Jesus Christ was born into that night in that lowly creche. Pieces like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Veiled in Darkness” whisper the longing for a savior in a fearsome world.

A few projects in later years have sought to bring some of the most Advent-toned songs into the light. Bifrost Arts’ 2009 album Salvation Is Created is one of my favorite 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.

Here is the traditional melody of one of my favorite Advent hymns, the one I think most perfectly expresses both the longing for Christ that the ancient Jews felt and the longing for his return that we can echo today.

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.

(Cover photo: Advent Candles, © Jacob A. Davis, 2012)