I’m not one of those people who complains every spring and fall when we have to change our clocks for daylight savings time. Sure, it’s a hassle, and there used to be the stress of wondering whether we’d forget and get to church either an hour early or an hour late—but cell phones have done away with that anxiety. I don’t really care about losing or gaining an hour of sleep, for truth be told, I never sleep well on Saturday nights—I’m always worrying about my sermon and about what’s going to happen on Sunday morning.
Still, there’s something shocking about that first Sunday evening when it gets dark an hour earlier than it did the night before. Whatever the temperature outside, the fact that it grows dark around 5:00 is a reminder that winter is coming, and I feel my body and spirit coming to terms with that fact.
We’re deep into it now in late November. We had a little over 9 hours of daylight yesterday; thankfully it was sunny and warm, so our spirits weren’t oppressed by the dreariness of a cloudy November day. We know it will get darker; that the days are still getting shorter.
One of the realities of modern life is the extent to which the electric lightbulb has changed our lives and cultures. The inevitability, the ubiquity, the sheer pervasiveness of darkness has been overcome permanently. It takes a power outage to remind us of the human struggle against darkness, the futility of that struggle, and all the ways that darkness limited and continues to limit human life and culture in so many ways.
Light, darkness. In spite of our technology that keeps absolute darkness at bay most of the time, we all know what it’s like when we turn on a flashlight in a dark space and are able to orient ourselves to our environment. We also know what it’s like when the light suddenly goes out and we don’t quite know where we are. This experience, the contrast of light and darkness are definitive aspects of human experience. We may tend to think of them as oppositional and there’s temptation to give them moral qualities—light is good, dark is evil. Certainly, one can see such tendencies in scripture.
Light and darkness is a leitmotif of our season and those that are to follow—Christmas and Epiphany. Think of the opening verses of the Gospel of John that is read on Christmas Day each year: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it.”
The collect for the First Sunday of Advent highlights this theme: “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” It is a quotation from the epistle reading, in which Paul urges his readers to pay attention, to wake up from their sleep for the night is far gone, the day is near, by which he means Christ’s coming.
There’s something about the advent wreath that conveys the tentativeness, the vulnerability of the season, and of our hope. Around us, the world grows darker as the days grow shorter. Around us, the world is dark—literally so in Ukraine where Russian missiles and drones knock out the power grid, forcing millions to shiver in the cold and struggle in darkness. The world is dark, the relentless march of mass shootings across our country. The light of hope seems nearly extinguished.
But in the midst of that darkness, even as we know more darkness is to come, week by week we light the candles of Advent, and as we do the Advent wreath grows brighter, its witness stronger, even as the darkness of the season deepens.
The witness of a single candle burning in a space shrouded by dusk or darkness. That is a metaphor of our Advent experience. St. Paul was writing a couple of decades after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We sense already in this text some of the uncertainty that arose as Christ’s expected return, in majesty as the collect says, was delayed. Stay awake, he admonishes, the night is far gone.
For us, that urgency, that expectation is even more distant. Oh we know all about those Christians who look for signs of Christ’s imminent return; those who interpret every historical event in light of the Book of Revelation or other biblical prophecies. But really, do most of us think that the loudest exponents of Christ’s imminent return believe it, or rather that they are using it to gain power, prestige, and wealth?
Do we believe it? We say we do, every Sunday, when we recite the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Still, the second coming of Christ, is one of those doctrines with which we might struggle, even as we acknowledge, as we see in the gospel reading as well as in the epistle the centrality of that belief to early Christianity and to the teachings of Jesus as well.
It may seem so farfetched that we press it from our minds, leave it to those other Christians to ponder, to reflect on, and to exploit. Our feet are on the ground, we take comfort in the rational world in which we live, and so we push away those beliefs—even if, from time to time, our minds may wander and wonder.
The images are gripping aren’t they? Two people in the field, one taken, one left. When we hear it, our mind goes to the stories we’ve heard or the movies we’ve seen that claim to depict Jesus’ second coming and the Rapture—a 19th century invention that has gripped the fascination of generations of especially American Christians.
If not that, then what? I don’t mean to demythologize or downplay the Second Coming. It is, after all, a central concept in Christianity. One way of thinking about it is that it highlights the contrast between what is and what should be. We know all about what is: the violence, the evil and hatred, I won’t recite the litany. We have a sense that things aren’t right and when we hear the words of scripture as the vision described in Isaiah 2, we feel in the marrow of our bones the disconnect between the world we inhabit and the world that God intends: a world of peace and justice, where swords are beat into plowshares.
At its core, the Second Coming is an expression of our hope that God will make all things right, that God will bring justice and peace, an end to suffering.
And so, in Advent, we light week by week the candles of the advent wreath, expressing our hope that even in the darkness of our world and of our lives, we can discern the light of God’s presence. And as the candles burn, they proclaim our faith that Christ will come and make all things new. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overwhelm it. Amen.