Advent and Darkness

Advent and Darkness

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5

Our world manifests from darkness. The opening lines of the Bible’s first creation story read, “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”[1] All new life emerges from under the protective cover of darkness: a mother’s womb, the ocean depths, the seeds underground. We fear and avoid darkness because we cannot comprehend it. What we perceive as the color black is not a color at all; it is an energy that contains all color within itself, just as the tiny acorn contains the giant oak. Only when light shines on the darkness are we able to perceive the world in its endless forms and colors. In the same way, the darkness covering the face of the deep is impregnated by the light of the Spirit, and the created universe springs forth into our conscious awareness. What we call darkness is only a state of reality our physical senses cannot differentiate. Because we largely shape our perceptions of the world visually, what our eyes are incapable of seeing is considered otherworldly, weird, frightening, foreign. Our human bodies, however, are capable of perceiving only a fraction of the infinite scope of God’s reality. The rest is darkness to us. It is not evil, though; darkness is the ground of all being prior to our awareness.

St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century Catholic mystic, wrote a poem and commentary when he was imprisoned by his Catholic brothers. The writings, titled The Dark Night, are commonly referred to as The Dark Night of the Soul. One way to understand the dark night is as a liminal space where what was once familiar and comfortable is no longer available to us, and whatever is next is not yet perceptible. We find ourselves in a state of limbo. We feel stuck and abandoned as if we have been plunged into darkness – a dark night of the soul. What is actually happening, however, is that we are being invited and prepared to experience God and life in new ways. Because we tend not to willingly leave what is comfortable and familiar, we often must be forced by circumstances to abandon the old. It could be the death of a loved one, a grim medical diagnosis, the loss of a job, an aging body, or a myriad of other earthly traumas that plunge us into a dark night. The relentless cycle of life, however, is forever forcing us out of the old and into something new. And that process occurs in what feels to us like darkness because we cannot perceive, understand, or control it. Paradoxically, a significant cause of our suffering is our unwillingness to let go of the past and allow the new to emerge.

And this is the darkness of Advent. We cannot see what is offered because it exists at a deeper level than our senses can perceive. We do not understand that the birth of the Christ-child is not only something that happened with Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago but is a perpetual act of creation happening within and around us today. Negative voices in our heads cry out that this dark night may be a permanent state, instead of truth-telling that it is a transitional phase we must pass through to arrive at where we are being led. Just as the darkness of the night is always overtaken by the light of the dawn, so our dark night recedes in the light of rebirth.

In the ever-impregnating, eternally-present moment of creation, God says, “Let there be light…”[2] When light shines on what was once dark, we see, and what was unknown and frightening becomes something we can acknowledge and accept into our living awareness. Not that everything coming into our awareness is pleasant, but it is less mysterious. God’s Word speaking creation into being is not simply an allegorical story of initial creation; it is an on-going process of our daily lives. It is not an evil, dark force imposed on us by a devilish energy intent on making us miserable. Rather, it is a sacred, God-soaked force forever inviting us into the light, even when we cling to the dark.

The season of Advent calls from the darkness, inviting us to enter its obscure night where we can emerge together, consciously reborn in the light of Christ. Yes, it can be frightening. No, it is not a clear path, nor is it necessarily without suffering. But it is the process by which the Christ emerges in us, paving the way for  Christmas – the celebration of Christ’s entry into our world, which is Emmanuel.

The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of other individuals or organizations. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.


[1] Genesis 1:2.

[2] Genesis 1:3.

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