Sweet peace in the morrow.
We were lost in the darkness, and I was trying to reassure everyone else. “Don’t worry,” I said, “we’re almost there, we’ll be safe in a moment.”. I wasn’t actually all that confident, really, but I had to put on a good face. I could see the terror in their eyes, fearing a missile aimed right at us: bulls-eye, instant death, or devastating injuries. “This way,” I shouted, and led the rag-tag group over a burned-out Mr Softee ice cream truck, through an enormous, smoldering carcass of turkey rib bones, across the slippery surface of the Rockefeller Center skating rink. Suddenly we were leaping across the gangplank onto the departing Guy V. Molinari, the last ferry to depart the sinking island of Manhattan. I grabbed the outstretched arm of the final member of the team, and tried, with every ounce of strength left in my body, to pull him over the gap, but he slipped out of my grasp and plunged into the icy, turbulent waves as the boat pulled away. “I’m sorry, Donald,” I shouted. And the man standing beside me looked at me and I looked at him, and…I woke up, my hand still outstretched from the side of the bed.
I was in my sister’s house in upstate New York, and it was 3am, at least 12 hours after our big Thanksgiving family dinner. Once I realized that it was my digestive tract’s imagination, and that I was not in fact responsible for the demise of the president-elect, I got up in the dark to go to the bathroom, and stumbled down the stairs, missing a step and nearly falling. The dog, behind the door in the family room, was alerted by the noise and automatically raised a warning alarm, a kind of cough-bark. No one seemed to be awakened, and my business done, I returned to my bedroom, unable to sleep, and thinking about the darkness all around me, and the night.
In these waning days of autumn as we float quietly towards the winter solstice of longest night, I welcome the dark that most of my friends and family condemn and denounce. “I hate it that it gets dark at 5pm,” they say, “how I love the long light of summer days”.
Not me. I welcome the growing darkness, I embrace the black cloak of night that wraps itself around our world in a season when leaves turn golden and fire red, when great oaks shed their acorns and squirrels hussle to gather them for winter storage. There is something about nocturnal darkness that is comforting to me. I like the night, when the pace slows a bit, the world grows more silent, when you are encouraged to look more deeply into the shadows. And to anticipate “coming to” the light.
The night wasn’t always so consoling. When I was little, I was often afraid of the dark. When I went to bed, I’d say my prayers, and my mother would tuck me in, leaving me with Shakespeare’s words: “Goodnight, goodnight, parting is such sweet sorrow but I shall say goodnight until the morrow. Sleep, sweet peace be on thy rest, goodnight,” and then she would leave me with one sweet kiss to help bear the night. My mama would leave the door slightly ajar on her parting, and I could see the light from the living room and the kitchen, the dancing light from the television, and I could hear the faded, distant sounds of conversations between my parents.
As a child I was never brave enough to face the enormity of the darkness or the silence of the night. Monsters live in the darkness, you know, and they wait to surprise and attack you when the lights go out and you can’t find a way to escape. At night, armies spring traps, gunfire flashes in the darkened streets, screams and cries of betrayal arise from seedy nightclubs and dangerous docks. The scariest of nightmares play out in endless, lightless nights, bringing terror to our sleeping bodies that sometimes finds a way to haunt us in our daily lives. Our fears, battles, and jealousies that are given freedom in the night, stalk us still as we walk unconscious through work and school and drive aggressively on the expressway and shop addictively at the mall.
As I got older, I learned to live with—or at least accept---the dangers lurking in the night. With even a little nightlight, I could keep the scary part of it at bay, and see that there is something else in darkness—a kind of hope, a pregnancy towards a better day. Tomorrow, tomorrow is always being born in the night, and with it the expectation that yes, the sun will come up, and our hearts can be expectant of something wonderful: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” Out of the darkness, “Come ... let us walk in the light of the Lord.” As I got older, I learned to look for the light in the darkness.
One night not long ago, while walking across the Williamsburg bridge, I encountered a real potential nightmare. The bridge has an awesome walkway, and at one point you are so close to the subway that shares the roadbed that you can look into the faces of the passengers seated within. I watched several trains go by, the faces lighted up in all manner of emotion—smiling, weary, frightened, amused. I turned my attention for a moment to the incredible lights of Manhattan, which were casting a glow onto the bridge itself.
As a train passed by behind me, I heard a voice calling out of the noise. “What are YOU looking at?” He was standing right beside me, uncomfortably invading my space-- his face…well, in my face. You know how you get that feeling, like when a huge dog is suddenly in front of you in pre-attack mode? That flush feeling that comes over you and you think, he can smell I’m scared? I was sure that the only light that was playing off my face was bright red. I finally found some words: “Nothing, man. I’m just standing here on this beautiful night.” Even though I’m a New Yorker and I long ago learned not to do this, I looked into his eyes. They were on fire, wild, and troubled. Maybe it was because I looked at him, maybe it was the way I looked into him, but he reacted differently than I expected. “Oh. OK then,” he said in a much less belligerent tone. He started to turn away, and then he turned back and smiled at me. “Have a nice night,” he said, and headed towards Williamsburg.
I stood there, my anxiety draining. Maybe all the beautiful light was too much for him, I thought. Or maybe he was drawn to it like all the rest of us, as we sleepwalk through the nights of our lives, hoping to wake up, “come to” the tomorrow of our best dreams.
This is a season of darkness, and a season of light. The darkness falls all around us, early now. Even as we make it home from school and work, we walk in the dark. But we are so eager for light, and when you walk or drive down the street towards your home, already there are so many Christmas lights up, displays all arranged on lawns and porches. I’ve been complaining about this for awhile… I hate rushing into Christmas right after—or even before—Thanksgiving. By the time Christmas really arrives—almost 4 weeks from now—you’re kind of sick of it already.
But I understand the need for it, maybe especially now. Many of us are struggling with our own darkness—in our families, our finances, our love lives, our health, our futures. Listen carefully to the prayer petitions as I read them in a few minutes. You will hear the darkness that our brothers and sisters are living through right now. Sometimes they are in the midst of real nightmares far worse than those generated by digestion of post-Thanksgiving dinners. And so maybe it’s natural to want to jump-start our Christmas, to roll out the light that it brings a little early.
Advent is all about light, a light in the darkness, sweet peace till the morrow. Advent is all about helping us face the enormity of the darkness. In Advent we recall that we are “coming to” the warm loving daylight that never ends. In Advent we look forward to the birth of a new day when swords shall be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, when all the crimes that are sanctioned in darkness are shamed in the good truth of the light everlasting, everloving day. In Advent we are given another chance to light a candle against the darkness of nations at war—inside, here; and outside—there. In Advent, something is trying to be born again, something is trying to tumble out of the long, hard darkness into the wonderful light of day where it is meant to grow and live in love.
We might have some part in making that happen. Maybe more than just a small part, actually. Advent is a time of hopeful watching and waiting, but Advent is a time to prepare, a time to prepare for a birth.
Two thousand years ago a child was born beneath a starry night, yet he cries still to be truly born in you, and in me. This is the time, the moment he is waiting for, and he asks each or us, are we ready for his ‘coming to’ birth? If you are like me, you aren’t. There is a lot of stuff that has to be done, there’s a lot of junk inside that needs to be thrown out, a lot of cleaning, a whole heck of a lot of re-forming this crib to make it suitable for the birth of the Light of the World.
And so, as we begin Advent together, shall we... shall we bring in the light? Maybe not exactly across the wreckage of Mr Softee trucks and giant turkey bones, or leaping across the troubled waters of New York harbor, but maybe in our own little heroic ways for one another. We can do a little bit every day. One act of kindness for someone, one sweet word, one gentle outreach, one little gesture to light someone’s way each day. We can be a guiding light for one another, outstretched hands reaching out with the light of our hope in the Lord who is trying to be born again. Shall we? Shall we bring in the light together?