Advent

winterEach year, as the days grow short, we remember.

That first week of Advent, there was news of violence. It was in the air around us, and it was terrible, but it was not surprising. I drove to work. The sky was a blank of grey. In the high hills there was snow though we could not see it for the mist. In the valley, a cold rain. The sun, a dim consolation, made its low arc through the southern sky.

We wait, we remember.

The earliest recorded Advent observations are European, dating to the fifth century. Never mind its Palestinian point of reference, Advent is an observation tied to the bleak days and black nights of those northern latitudes. I imagine that variety of darkness centuries before electric light, the paltry relief of the faint dawn. Snow upon snow, dark upon dark, each day shorter than the last. It would have been a kind of yearly death, and out of the dark of that death, we remember. As the days grow short, we wait.

I observed the second Sunday of Advent holding my daughter, who would not sleep, as the room drained of its slate light and the early dusk came on. Grey into grey. Dim into dark. The curtains were open, but it did not matter much.

We wait, and we remember. We light candles. We read the story aloud to ourselves and to one another.

The girl was likely not more than sixteen when the angel came to her. Its strange voice split her open, poured into her news of a blessing so great it would uproot her, unmake her, and fill her with terrible light. We remember. We remember, too, the four hundred years of divine silence that preceded her visitation. Generations lives and died, and God did not speak, and so they waited. Empires rose and fell, and they languished, a dusty and minor province, and it became difficult to remember that they were not alone. And then this. The angel came to her, to this peasant girl, a virgin, listless and afraid. It came to her with news no one would believe. The Word of God—so long silent—the very Word of God was in her.

Each year, as the days grow short and the nights dark, we remember and we wait. Ours are days of bloodshed and of injustice like the days that preceded them. Ours are days of forgetfulness and of hypocrisy. It is difficult to remember, harder still to believe. The earth groans under us. Waves of humanity rise, and rage, and fall. Ours are days very much like the days and centuries that came before them. Ours are days of corruption and of deceit. Ours are days of anticipation and of fear, of expectation and of silence. Advent is the right observation for our age.

In time for the third Sunday of Advent, someone fixed the organ in the church. The pipes hummed with breath, the pews rattled. We stood, and we sang. Our voices, the voices of our children, the noisy rattle of community, and the organ moaned its great, longing voice above and among us. Outside, grey and more rain. We lit the candles, and soon it was dark again, but the songs were in us.

We remember. We wait. We learn again to hope.

The child was red-faced and squalling, filmed in vernix. The funk of meconium and the animal stink of the place. Here was God, the Prince of heaven, the Word made flesh, and very flesh he was. We remember. We remember that he came to peasants, his birth attended only by a band of shepherds, toothless and delirious, telling tales of their own visitation. The girl would have believed them, but then they would have gone, and she would have held the child in the dark, tried to give him her breast, tried to soothe him. She was far from her home, spent from labor, awash in prophecy and afraid. She listened to the shudder of his breath, the very breath that first breathed light. She held the tiny body of the Infinite One, the very One who had invented her. We remember, we believe.

It is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and I am awake before dawn. Outside there is snow now, and the snow glows its own blue light. The house is quiet. I light the candles, read the ancient words. I put on boots and go out into the large and open cold. Out of our small silence and into a silence much larger, out of our insulated dark into the massive dark. But now light is beginning in the east, and the crusty cover of old snow is singing that light back to the sky.

Ours are small lights.

It was long ago. It is difficult to imagine, difficult to believe. We are like the shepherds, like old Simeon whom everyone must have assumed was mad. We wait just as our mothers and fathers waited. We wait in the dark, we watch for the light. Each year, as the days grow short and the nights dark, as the years turn and turn again and though it strains our collective memory to do so, we remember. We remember that God came to us and lived among us, a peasant born to a Palestinian virgin, an itinerant preacher hated by the religious and executed by the powerful. We remember, and we wait for his return. And in the dark, we sing.

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