It has been a dark advent.
This may be a tl:dr for anyone reading this, so don't worry about it. This is just for me:
|Sunset over the fields near Barrow|
First of all, I love Christmas. I actively avoid all seasonal pop songs, and I try not to go into town any more than I have to from the despicable Black Friday onwards, but Christmas itself, the original event, the symbolism of the celebrations we still have, I really do treasure.
However: Advent. I’d not really given much thought to Advent as a festival. It’s just the runup from December 1st until December 25th, an excuse to start every morning with a bit of chocolate (hooray!). Advent was the period during which you went from ‘moderately expectant’ to ‘hyperactively cheerful, so help me!’ culminating in the giddy triumph of Christmas Day.
But not this year. This year the idea of waiting for the arrival of Christ and Christmas has meant something very different. To be honest for a few weeks I thought I was losing my mind a little. I felt like I was channeling an Old Testament prophet or something; Jeremiah or Habakkuk. One of the ones who felt everything on behalf of the people, or dealt with the burden of knowing how desperately God loved and wept over them by making a crazy interactive art installation (Jeremiah. He built a dirt model of the city of Jerusalem, then spent over two years just lying on his bed as part of the pain and mourning), except I've not yet reached the point in chapter three where the Lord replies and the prophet (Habakkuk) turns his complaints to praise and anticipation of better days. I'm still looping in chapter one.
“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.”
~ Habakkuk 1:1-4
I wondered if it was a little depressive spell – I get those a few times a year but they’ll normally only last a week or two and while they’re pretty awful the knowledge that they always pass carries me through. This has been going on for over a month and there wasn’t that sense of it ending that I usually have. I was on some kind of crazy empathetic overload.
I won’t go into all the details because it won’t make sense, but from mid-November there were five events that came hot on each other’s heels. One was a past war, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War (world war one) that killed 16 million people and led to the deaths of over 60 million in the following Second World War in just six years. The second was particular updates on the current conflicts in Syria and Iran, including my own country’s decision to a) bomb certain areas to force extremists out of them, despite such action being known to increase extremism and b) withdraw the coastguard boat plucking Syrian refugees out of the water as they flee their own country, in an attempt to stop them exiting via that route. News about the Gaza Strip conflict also holds a lot of pertinence at this time of year, taking place so close to where Jesus lived his life. You can trace the conflict directly from those historic wars to these current ones, and see how little we’ve learned about how to treat each other.
In the UK no one is being blown up so far, but the heartless attitude to those on welfare has meant that Food Bank use is still on the rise, benefits are harder to obtain, and the poorest people are being victimised. I used to think that the point of government was to ensure all people were treated the same, but now I think differently. The state should give the most support to those most in need. Those who are richer, by dint of being richer, are more likely to have enough resources to weather more and bigger storms without aid. Once again it's a problem of the rich getting richer (which isn't bad in itself) at the expense of those least able to defend themselves. You can google the New Era tenancy campaign in London. When it comes to money, why is enough not enough for some people?
This other two events were more personal, so I will give only limited details. One was simply a breakup between two friends of mine, seemingly based not even on how they saw each other, but on how a person can see themself. What impact they think they have on the people around them simply by existing. We all fight this battle all the time; some days we win cleanly, other days not so much.
The final one was the death of a couple’s son. I didn’t know him but I know his parents a little bit through church and admire them hugely. He was around my age, and his death wasn’t unexpected due to the particular illness he had, but I doubt age or circumstance makes the death of your child any easier to bear. The father posted a Bible verse on Facebook that's usually associated with romantic love, and it always seemed nice and poetic, but it has never before hit me in the gut like it did when I saw a dad write it about his boy during his last weeks.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
~ Song of Solomon 8: 6-7
None of these events happened directly to me. None of them were my tragedies. I’m separated from them by history and geography and age and relationships and education and employment. But all of these hit me like physical blows for some inexplicable reason. I yo-yoed between being soul-crushingly sad and unspeakably, incomprehensibly furious. I was glassy-eyed and distant at work and at home, I cried over all of these things when no one could see me. I tried to explain a tiny bit to a friend but although she tried to reason me round it didn’t help any and it was either stand in rigid silence (which I did) or break down in front of her over people I’d never met. I refused to let myself be comforted, because when people are killing each other and struggling for food and mourning their families, how could I ask to be comforted? I didn’t get a lot of sleep and I despaired when I was awake. When the house was empty I stood in the kitchen and screamed and swore with the worst language I knew, and slammed the freezer door repeatedly because it was the one thing I knew I couldn’t break.
This isn’t really about me. I mean, this is what I felt, but I’m just explaining to you the depths of the anger and sadness that are attached to those events, because that’s all I’ve got to talk about. The intensity of it is fading now but it's all still there in the back of my head.
I went outside a lot, because if I need to find God badly it’s the quickest and most reliable way for me – not that you can’t find him elsewhere but it seems to be our preferred medium of communication. Sitting still indoors and trying to string nice sentences together doesn’t really work for me. A lot of what I want to say I don’t have words for, so just sounds come out. You can’t easily pray your soul-groans at a midweek group without confusing everybody, and my prayer for myself over all those four weeks would have made no sense to anyone else overhearing. Besides, it’s always easier to talk with someone when you’re out on a walk with them – I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this. Walking through little wildernesses acts like a balm for my brain. Everything around you is vitally alive, yet at the same time largely indifferent to you so there’s solitude and quiet. This is more my style, especially during the cold months. Modern secular Christmas tries to draw us out into a constant state of partying and extroversion, which there is nothing wrong with per se, but for me it’s unsustainable. Winter is a time to withdraw and recuperate and become introspective. The nights draw in around us, and in our nine-to-five week all is dark.
“The people who live in darkness have seen a great light.” ~Isaiah 9
This is why we chose mid-winter as the date for Christmas. It wasn’t so much that the calendar made sense as the symbolism of the solstice. Yes it is cold. Yes it is dark. Yes, the end of all this will not come in a flash, but see! From this point on, light will begin returning.
I sat by a small river on one of my walks and God showed me an eddy – a little whirl in the flow of the water where some fault in the riverbed makes it loop back on itself. It looks like it’s just going round and round in a tiny whirlpool, never getting anywhere, never progressing. Then I looked at the river and saw that the eddy that had taken up all my vision was just a small part of the bigger flow, the inexorable path of the water downstream. As ridiculous as it may sound, I felt like I was looking at all of Time. The water would get where it was bound to go in the end. In the bigger picture gravity was a stronger pull than a momentary eddy.
On another walk I found a field covered in frost. Some things were dead, some were sleeping, some were still alive, others would give birth to new things in the spring. All of them were made beautiful by the cold crystals of frost. This is a lesson I’d learned a few years back after a relative was murdered (I went to the woods to settle my head and my heart, and found God waiting for me there too) but it’s good to be reminded. I have brought evergreen ivy into the house and twisted it into a circular wreath because for now things will die, but there are things that go on forever.
And finally, on the morning of Sunday 21st December, it will be the winter solstice for this year. The shortest and darkest day of the year. I intend to get up early before the sun rises, go to the top of the hill outside town, and meet it squarely as it comes in. I did this two years ago with a friend and I still remember the holiness of it. Maybe it won’t be the same, but it’s something I still want to do.
Edit: In the end, I went and it was what I'd hoped, but in a different way than I'd expected. I was surprised by how many people came with me. Seven of us set out in the darkness and trekked the short climb up the hill. We just sat together and talked, and yet sunrise still felt like something special. That marriage of the ordinary and supernatural is important. Spirituality isn't separate from the mundane parts of our lives. It sits alongside them and is part of them.
"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." (Is 9)
This guy is passing on something God told him about. Talking about the promise of someone who will fix all the screwed up stuff in the world. Bring a genuine way to help us sort out the crappy way we treat each other, the things that separate us from each other, and from Him.
This turns out to be Jesus, but they don’t know that at the time. Isaiah just figuratively calls it a ‘great light’. Maybe it’s right above them, or in the middle of them, lighting up the landscape like a flare. Maybe it’s a long way off yet, like the glimmer of daylight at the end of a long underground tunnel, but reachable with enough time. Maybe it’s steady and inexorable like a sunrise.
In some ways this is a one time process. Jesus is born – BAM, the light has arrived. Job done. But in other ways this is an ongoing series of events. It keeps happening again and again in the lives of individuals throughout history. It’s happening now.
The people living in darkness. That’s us. That’s where we live. This is Advent.
But the light is coming for all of us.