Yesterday was Gaudete Sunday, traditionally a joyful interruption in the midst of an advent season otherwise characterized by somber waiting and postures of penance. Being at a non-lectionary church, we read and our pastor preached on John 1.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Our pastor spoke of getting lost at a campground once, with utter darkness surrounding them in an unfamiliar place, and then seeing one small light in the distance, the flashlight of fellow campers. We know from multiple human experiences that the darkness cannot overshadow the smallest of lights: the brilliance of the first star peeking out as daytime turns to night; the comfort of a candle when our otherwise predictable lives are interrupted by a power outage; the difference even a small flashlight makes as we navigate dark paths. Indeed, the deeper the darkness, the more brightly such small lights shine.
In my own life, I couldn’t help but think about the ways I have to find small joys in the midst of much darkness in this season of life. As soon as I say that, I am tempted to make all kinds of disclaimers – I lead a privileged life, I have so many people who love me, my husband has a stable job, my kids are healthy, etc., etc. And those things are all true. But the reality is that I have struggled mightily with depression for most of my adult life, so no matter what the “facts” may be, I feel mired in darkness much of the time. And the other “facts” of my life include things like overwhelming debt, a husband working a job and a half so I can try to finish my PhD, paralyzing guilt that it’s taken me this long to finish my PhD, the stress of a part-time teaching job while I finish, and three kids aged 12-18, any one of whom might bring enough drama in any given week to fill a lifetime.
So I try to hold on to the moments of joy and revel in the most minuscule of lights that pepper my life. The Christmas tree we found this year that just happens to be one of the fullest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It brings a little pleasure to my heart every time I walk into my living room. The screened in porch on the house we’ve owned for a little over a year, where I’m sitting right now on an unexpectedly warm December day. A thirty minute car ride with my normally angsty, moody, defiant 12-year-old that turned into him enthusiastically gushing about his favorite musical artist and playing me portions of their songs, including a song that makes him cry every time he listens to it. I may not get another conversation like that with him for weeks or even months, and so I soak it up, savor it, like a piece of bread that fills my aching belly and will need to sustain me for several days.
My melancholy soul finds comfort in the darkness of Advent. It reminds me that the “darkness” of my own experience is not anathema to the gospel. That God sees me and is present to me in the darkness. I have long loved Psalm 139 for this very reminder.
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. . . .
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
God meets me in the darkness. The Son of God entered the frailty and suffering of human existence to demonstrate once and for all that darkness and even death cannot separate us from God.
God meets me in the darkness, but I need the light too. I am only human, after all. Made for darkness and light, for sorrow but also for joy.
In the Old Testament lectionary reading for Gaudete Sunday, God offers words of comfort and hope to his people via the prophet Isaiah. Here the imagery revolves not around darkness and light, but in the contrast of wilderness and desert with water, blossoming, and new life.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom….
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…
Darkness and wilderness. Warm light and gushing water. When the darkness is overwhelming, we long for the comfort and reassurance that light brings. When all that surrounds us is dry and parched, including our own souls, we long for life-giving streams and the shades of green that indicate new life. The small moments of joy in this life point toward a greater joy, the joy that will come when God completes his mission of making all things new. The joy of his coming. The joy of Christmas.
And it is that joy which grounds our hope in this earthly pilgrimage. Hope that is not a naive hopefulness; hope that is not simple optimism; hope that is not a denial of earthly realities like suffering and death. Author Catherine McNiel warns that we must not “mistake hope for safety.” She goes on,
Hope breaks us open. Hope is never naive to suffering, is synonymous not with optimism but with courage. Hope knows with certainty that life overflows with both beauty and pain, and we cannot know which will rise to meet us. (1)
Hope is what the gospel offers for “in the meantime.” We have moments of joy, precursors of the fullness of joy for which we were made, and this joy grounds our hope. Hope, as McNiel recognizes, is closely connected to courage. Isaiah 35 with its words of hope recognizes how difficult it can be to persevere “in the meantime.” At least for some of us.
Strengthen the weak hands,
steady the shaking knees!
Say to the cowardly:
“Be strong; do not fear!
Here is your God; vengeance is coming.
God’s retribution is coming; he will save you.”
What a gift to read a hopeful, confident passage like Isaiah 35, and to feel seen in the simple acknowledgement of those who are “cowardly.” Those who have weak hands and shaking knees are not judged or chastised for their lack of faith. Or for their lack of hope. The community around them, the prophet himself, is told to encourage those who are hope-less or even faith-less. Reassure them. Have faith on their behalf. Remind them of God’s saving power.
In this season of Advent and when my own darkness can feel crushing, I – one of the “cowardly” – lean on all God has given to sustain me, to bring me a bit of light: small joys in my life, the community that surrounds me with its faith, the words of Scripture. I am nourished by these things and find hope for the coming year – hope to face head-on a life that “overflows with both beauty and pain.”
- Catherine McNiel, All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2019, 6.