Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Bird Treacy’s substack Wiggles & Wonder on November 14th and is shared today with her permission. —Allison, ed.
For a long time I had terrible insomnia. Well, to be fair, I still would except I’ve built an elaborate set of safeguards against long, sleepless nights. The worst thing about my insomnia, though, was that because of my health problems, I often spent the night in pain and uncomfortable or stuck in the awareness that I was just going to need to nap the next day. There was no catching up with the cycle and as much as I have always considered myself a morning person, I became a night owl by strange biological force.
When I think about the Parable of the Bridesmaids asleep when they are meant to be vigilant or the Epistle from First Thessalonians we heard the following Sunday in which Paul reminds his friends and fellow early Christians that we are people of the day, that we must keep awake, I think about those nighttime hours. About those left behind in the dark or cast out into it in some of these central passages. And I think about what it means to be awake in the night.
As we enter Advent, we confront a slight contradiction in our calendars. Advent, the season that ushers in the returning light, begins while we are still in the darkest days of the year, while that darkness is still building. December 21st is the longest night, but we light the candles. We prepare. It is, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, “The good news is that dark and light, faith and doubt, divine absence and presence, do not exist at opposite poles. Instead, they exist with and within each other, like distinct waves that roll out of the same ocean and roll back into it again.”
In all those sleepless nights, the good news was that I could always turn on the light. I could always, if I needed to, nudge my wife awake so that I didn’t need to be alone. Even as a teenager, I knew what it was to hear the phone ring in the middle of the night because a friend was reaching out from the darkness, and while I grew up with few stars, I would search the sky for the passing lights of airplanes, the world awake and alive in the dark.
Writing about day and night, waking and sleeping, Paul closes this part of his missive to the Thessalonians with the key piece of things, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” And isn’t this the difference between waking and sleeping, whether we are carrying each other’s burdens and lifting up each other’s gifts? In this, there is no casting out into outer darkness, at least not if someone else chooses to remain alongside the one who is cast out.
On the first day of creation, God gave us the gifts of darkness and light. God separated them—the dark, the first thing, that which was everything until it wasn’t anymore, and the light. And when we tell the Creation story in Godly Play, we talk about this new light; it isn’t just the light in a flashlight or a candle or in your headlights at night. It is the light from which all light comes. And these words are a reminder that there are so many different kinds of light.
There’s something special about having all of these words for light, all of these different ways we interact with light. In particular, it’s a reminder in this season (or any time you are having a difficult season of life) that you do not have to be the light. Indeed, even at the best of times, we need to share in different parts of the work of light – as Jen Willhoite of Cobbleworks breaks it down, there is the shining, but there is also reflecting and enlightening.
Think of the moon. The moon is not a source of light. The moon reflects the sun’s light. But ask any poet about the moon; we all have poems about it. We all watch the moon, its shifting forms, narrowing and darkening, growing and shining down on us. We turn to the moon even as it isn’t the source of light because it reflects a greater light.
And, as I sit here typing, I do so by the light of a lamp. I don’t look at the lamp. The lamp enlightens what I want to look at and I rely on it. It reveals details and allows me to focus. All of the modes of light are essential.
This Advent, what if we made these different ways of being light a piece of our devotion. Each day, each week, how can we Shine, Reflect, & Enlighten?
Shine: Engage in good works. Help someone. Offer care. Express love.
Reflect: Support someone else’s good work. Give praise and speak positively about others. Help them see their own goodness.
Enlighten: Highlight important causes. Learn something new and share it with family and friends.
I wonder what else these words might mean to you and how you might practice these things this coming Advent?