A Season of Light

The Advent / Christmas cycle is a liturgical time of light in the darkness.  In the Northern hemisphere, at least, it is also a time of solar light reaching a nadir and resuming a climb to its peak.  The solar change is gentle and gradual at most latitudes; daylight lengthens by minutes each day.  There is no transition from eight hours of sunlight one day to eleven hours the next day.

At a Mass, the light is gentle.  The altar is flanked by candles; candles are used in opening processions and in the procession of the Book of the Gospels to the ambo.  At the Easter Vigil, the fire burns bright in the darkness outside the church building but the conquest of the darkness inside the church takes place gently as taper after taper is borne into the nave.

We mark at Christmas the meek entry into the world of the Light of the world.  With an unambiguous nod to the kenotic hymn of Philippians 2, the collect of Christmas Mass during the Day refers to Christ who “humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  As one song puts it, “the child who played with the moon and stars / waves a snatch of hay in a common barn.”[1]

Gentleness, yes, but as the monks of Weston Priory sing, “in the stillness of the night your Word / leapt into our city of turmoil.”[2]  There is a leaping here, a suddenness as in the leaping of the beloved in Song of Songs 2, bounding over mountains, a passage that was among the options for readings on 21 December.  In Scripture generally, the phrase “on that day” typically heralds a newness, a dramatic inbreaking.  The phrase “on that day there will be a great light” appears in the entrance antiphon for the first three Tuesdays in Advent.  Though it makes no reference to light, the first reading on 23 December, from Malachi 3, asserts that “suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek.”

God’s gracious condescension to our estate, which we recall during this season, is also the intersection—the collision—of two different worlds.  Poet Shemaiah Gonzalez speaks of the Advent waiting in anticipation.

Pleading, begging, wishing, longing, hoping
For the light to overtake the darkness.
As in the beginning,
When the earth was formless, void.
When darkness covered the surface of the deep,
And light crashed through.[3]

Recalling Christ’s nativity, we know that the light crashed through with ineffable tenderness and unfathomable power.  And yet, as the monks at Weston added, in the stillness of the night “a man was born, a man of peace and not of war, / revealing hopes yet unfulfilled.”[4]

Let us commit ourselves again (and again and again) to fulfilling those hopes so that with God’s grace “the light of faith, which illumines our minds, may also shine through our deeds” (collect for Christmas Mass at Dawn).  May our deeds be characterized by the ineffable tenderness and unfathomable power of love.

[1] Pierce Pettis, “Family” on the album Chase the Buffalo © 1993

[2] Monks of Weston Priory, “Song of Creation” on the album Winter’s Coming Home © 1975

[3] Shemaiah Gonzalez, “Out of Sight.”  The full poem is available here .

[4] Monks of Weston Priory, “Song of Creation”

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