Walking in the Dark Without Reaching for a Light
Embracing the Minor Keys of Advent
For as long as I can remember, I have craved the rhythms of the equinox and solstice. More than the first day of a season or the holidays that season holds, I look forward to the longest or shortest days or perfectly equal times of light and dark. Something about this certainty calms my heart.
Despite the very scientific causes and effects of these quarterly events, a spirituality clings to them too. They are not Christmas, when we celebrate the King’s birth, or Easter when we celebrate his resurrection, nor are they Halloween, whose mixed heritage sends Christians everywhere into defense mode. They are simply four days when the daylight and darkness come at such a point that we take notice. Yet for centuries, these days have marked a kind of newness or death that is more spiritual than tangible. I think it is because hope is baked into us.
We are people who love to hope and even if we cannot muster the words or feelings of hopefulness, there is something about the certainty of a specific kind of day that comes once a year that reminds us that some things are true and unchanging and certain. Holidays might do that for some folks, but I am not sentimental enough these days to feel that as deeply. Instead, it is Winter Solstice I look forward to in December, and Spring Equinox I look forward to in spring.
Winter Solstice has always been my favorite though. This morning I think to myself how strange it is that in most celebrations there is a simmering expectation that happens for weeks or months or days before, a growing anticipation, the swelling symphony growing steadily more full as the day approaches. Each day a new present is added beneath the tree, another gift checked off the list, tickets bought to go home, or Easter best bought and baskets filled. But with Winter Solstice, the opposite is true.
The symphony quiets almost to silence. The darkness only grows. The morning is later and the evening is earlier. A hush begins to fall over creation. The animals are fully hibernated and the humans close to it too. The season is dampened, not awakened. Even as we add one flame a week to our Advent candles, the world around us grows one moment darker.
I am interested in the tension this requires of a Christian in particular. Many of us use the hurrah of the capitalistic season to pretend the darkness doesn’t exist, but I sense, for most of us, we still feel it, even if we don’t admit it. Something about the consumerism and premature carols and Christmas parties feels, well, almost like major keys in a minor season. Out of place, jarring, even if we’ve come to know nothing else about December.
But the older I grow, the more I need the minor key of this month. I need to remember that without Jesus the darkness would keep on growing darker and that solstice is a grand interruption to the sense of not-rightness that exists in the world. But in order for me to truly know the grand interruption, I need almost to be lulled to sleep in the darkening days. Otherwise Christmas day is just a day and then it is packed up and soon forgotten until the whole thing begins again next fall.
Fleming Rutledge wrote, “Advent begins in the dark,” but I wonder, actually if Advent begins in the light, on Summer Solstice, that longest day. We know, when we wake in the morning on June 22, that we have a little bit less light than we did the day before, and each day a little bit less than the day before. And something about that affects our spiritual equilibrium, upsets the balance of our innate sense of hope and anticipation.
This month I will be listening to this playlist I made for our second Advent season in The Little River Cottage and rereading Fleming Rutledge’s Advent sermons. I will embrace the beauty of lamps instead of overhead lights, and candles lit from morning til evening. I will not over-schedule myself. I will not feel guilty for saying, “No,” or “Not yet,” or “I can’t.” I will see the beauty in the rust and gray of late autumn in New York. I will put candles in our windows, but not put up a tree or light it until Solstice. I will not send out Christmas cards until after December 25th. I will let the light come as the Light comes, in a minor key and long after I wish it would.
Do you have thoughts? I started a discussion about this on the Sayable Subscriber Chat.
Or, if this resonates with you, consider sharing it with a friend who may need it too.