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, and that is not often where I live, it simply rides the southern horizon with a distant, hazy glow.
While I happen to love the darkening skies of winter, others find the darkness encroaches not just the natural world but their inner world as well. A longitudinal study conducted in Denmark from 1995-2012 of 185,419 people showed an 11% increase of depression diagnoses during the winter months.(1) One researcher notes that “light has a powerful effect on the brain. It can be helpful to those suffering from depression because it can boost serotonin and have an effect similar to antidepressants…”(2) For many, the darkening of the natural world is simply the reflection of their day-to-day reality.
Of course, darkness and night evoked ominous images in the ancient world. Early 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 a loss of hope, absence, and cessation of life.(3) Darkness created fear. It was the world of shadows, mystery, and all that could not be seen. Darkness has always been associated with chaos, evil, and death, and therefore was not often thought of in either romantic or nostalgic terms.
For many individuals—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. And many wonder whether there is any reason to hope that light might be found even in these dark places.
It is not by accident that the season of Advent coincides with the earthly cycle 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 bids all to come wait and hope in the darkness of these days. Like those ancient peoples who watched their sun-god disappear, they found that there were gifts that could be had even in this dark season. They took the wheels off of their carts, and decorated them with greens and garlands, hanging them 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.”(4)
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.”(5) 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 also 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.”
For those who dwell in a dark season of despair, for those who are afraid in the dark, and for those who grope in the shadows, 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 the in the winter of our dark longing.”(6)
The hope of Advent for all is that God is in the darkness with us, though our experience of God may seem as clear as shifting shadow. Yet 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 awaits us even there—for the 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) Ashley Strickland, “Transitioning from daylight saving time could increase depression.” CNN Online, November 4, 2016.
(2) Dr. Norman Rosenthal cited in Ashley Strickland, Ibid.
(3) Gertrud Muller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press), 63.
(4) Ibid., 63.
(5) Sally Breedlove, Choosing Rest: Cultivating a Sunday Heart in a Monday World (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 133.
(6) Gertrud Muller Nelson, 63.