Those of us who make our home in the Northern Hemisphere must welcome the encroaching darkness of the winter months. At the height of winter in Kotzebue, Alaska, for example, daylight is but a mere two hours. Where I live, the light begins to recede around 4:30 PM. When the winter sun is out it simply rides the southern horizon with a distant, hazy glow.
Perhaps it seems strange to some, but I love the shorter-days and the darkening skies of winter. For me, the darkness of winter invokes nostalgia for the days of huddling around the fireplace, hot coffee, and curling up with a good book. Indeed, there are some gifts that can only be enjoyed in the darkness of winter and in this season of lessening light.
Of course, darkness and night evoke ominous images as well. Pre-Christian inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere—who did not separate natural phenomenon from their religious and spiritual understanding—saw the departing sunlight as the fleeing away of what they believed was the Sun God. Darkness indicated distance from this receding god and what followed was a loss of hope, the presence of absence and the cessation of life.(1) Like these ancient peoples, darkness often creates fear. We fear what we cannot see in the dark, and what is seen inhabits the mysterious realm of shadows. Darkness has always represented chaos, evil, and death, and therefore is rarely thought of in either romantic or nostalgic terms.
For many—even those who live in sun-filled hemispheres—the darkness of life is a daily nightmare. Despair, chronic loneliness, doubt, and isolation conspire to prevent even the dimmest light. The darkness that comes only as a visitor during the night is for many a perpetual reality. Is there any reason to hope that the light might be found even in these dark places?
It is not by accident that the season of Advent for Christians coincides with the earthly season of fading light and increasing darkness. With its focus on waiting, repentance, and longing, Christians view Advent as a season of somber reflection. Yet, even as the light recedes in winter, the season of Advent offers surprising gifts in the shorter days, in the womb of pregnant possibility, and in the often anxious anticipation that accompanies waiting in the darkness. Those pre-Christian peoples who watched their sun-god disappear found that there were gifts that could be had even in this dark season. The wheels of carts used for hauling and carrying goods, were taken off and decorated with greens and garlands. Those ordinary objects now hung on their walls as mementos of beauty and hope. Taking the wheels off of their carts meant the cessation of work and a time to watch and wait. As Gertrud Muller Nelson writes about this ancient ritual, “Slowly, slowly they wooed the sun-god back. And light followed darkness. Morning came earlier. The festivals announced the return of hope after primal darkness.”(2)
While the dark is mysterious and often ominous, it is also a place of unexpected treasures. As one author notes, “[S]pring bulbs and summer seeds come to life in the unlit places underground. Costly jewel stones lie embedded in the dark interiors of ordinary rocks. Oil, gas, and coal reserves lie far beneath the light of the earth’s surface. The dark depths of the ocean teem with life.”(3) Indeed, unique gifts from earth, sky, and sea can only be observed in the dark.
Spiritual gifts, too, often emerge out of the darkness. The writer of Genesis paints a picture of the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial chaos and the darkness that covered the surface of the deep. Out of the darkness of chaos came the light of creation. The covenant promises of God to give children and land to Abram were forged “when the sun was going down…and terror and great darkness fell upon him.” Moses received the Law in the “thick darkness where God was.” God’s abiding presence was the gift from the darkness. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, the God of Israel promises: “I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.” Indeed, the long-awaited Messiah would be revealed to those “who walk in darkness” and who “live in a dark land.”(4) Unlike the sun-god of the pre-Christian understanding, the God of the biblical writers did not flee as the sun faded away, but could be found in the darkest and remotest places.
For those who dwell in the dark season of despair or discouragement, the promise of treasures of darkness may spark a light of hope. “The recovery of hope,” writes Muller Nelson, “can only be accomplished when we have had the courage to stop and wait and engage fully in the winter of our dark longing.”(5)
The hope of Advent is that God is in the darkness with us even though our experience of God may seem as clear as shifting shadow. The hope of Advent is that God’s coming near to us in the person of Jesus is not hindered by the darkness of this world or of our own lives. We may fear our dark despair hides us from God, but the treasure of God’s presence waits even there—for darkness is as light to God.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Gertrud Muller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1986), 63.
(2) Ibid., 63.
(3) Sally Breedlove, Choosing Rest: Cultivating a Sunday Heart in a Monday World (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 133.
(4) Genesis 15:12; Exodus 20:21; Deuteronomy 5:22; Isaiah 45:3; Isaiah 9:2.
(5) Gertrud Muller Nelson, 63.