Back in the early ‘80’s, when I was still living in Colorado, on Good Friday mornings a friend and I would take the 4 to 5 a.m. Night Watch shift at church, then we’d drive out to Warren Lake. There we would walk a well-worn path along the lake’s edge as the moon set over the Rockies and the sun rose over the eastern plains.
I thought of those long-ago mornings last month on Election Day, when I got up in the dark and drove alone to a farmer’s field where I could watch the lunar eclipse here in Maine. As darkness covered the moon and turned it to blood, as clouds then came and covered the moon, as darkness deepened on a day when so many of us feared the end of democracy, I turned around to walk back to the car, and found the eastern sky glowing with the first light of dawn.
And I saw that light as a sign of hope, not just for this country, I realized, but for myself: a balm to soothe the tender place in my soul. With so much at stake in this country, with so many public, global disasters going on around us, my own sadness seemed small, but there it was. What helped, what gave me hope in that morning’s image, is that while darkness is real, it’s not forever. After all, we live a resurrection faith, and on the other side of Lent, beyond the cross, is the empty tomb.
And now it’s Advent, a time when our walk takes us toward the birth of the Holy Child, a walk toward light even as our days grow short and darkness deepens (in Maine, sunset is now at 4 p.m.). And for me, this year, even as I turn east toward Bethlehem, my heart is pulled west. My granddaughters, about whom I’ve written so often here, who have lived a just mile away, are moving to Oregon on New Year’s Eve, and I grieve the unraveling of the ways they have been woven into our daily lives.
I know that Advent’s tension between darkness and light is part of this holy season; by my age, almost everyone I know carries the weight of loss and sorrow along with the hope and joy of Christmas. I’ve come over the years to appreciate those nativity scenes and creches that show a cross over the manger, a reminder that the miraculous birth is shadowed by torture and death. But even the cross is embraced in the light of the star, a reminder that all is not lost, not ever: our resurrection faith assures us that the child born in Bethlehem lives yet, is both incarnate and eternal, and will come again to gather us all into eternal life.
Even in these elder years, my husband and I walk before breakfast most mornings, and today as we walked the near-by woods at dawn, an orange sun rose behind trees and lit bare branches that extended into the brightening sky. And I remembered the Advent hymn about how Jesus will come “when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks; when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.”
The winding path of Advent takes us through prophecy and promise to that morning dawn of Christmas, inviting us to bring not only our gifts but our sins and our sorrows to lay beside the manger, knowing that all will be enfolded in the embrace of our loving God. That is God’s gift to us.