Most of us don’t like being in the dark. Except to sleep, and even then there are exceptions.
We want light—warm, fuzzy, cozy light.
Advent, of course, is a time for us to remember the darkness. To remember that it is not always bright and cheery and warm. To remember that there are times so dark and desperate that all we can do is cling to hope, peace, joy, and love—and we begin with hope—hope that somehow, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
***As I write this, I recognize that though I want to write about the darkness of racism, the whole dichotomy of light=good and dark=bad has terrible repercussions. Our historical biblical and traditional language uses the image of white as goodness—white as snow to symbolize being cleansed from sin, white robes to symbolize holiness—and dark, black, has been used to symbolize sin and evil. We need to be careful in our language, and maybe find another metaphor… but in the meantime, the Northern Hemisphere is getting darker. The sunlight is growing dim, or nonexistent for our friends above the Artic Circle. It’s not perfect, but it is a metaphor we understand.***
This Advent in particular has been dark. With the non-indictment announcement in the case of Michael Brown’s shooting death just days before the first Sunday of Advent—traditionally a Sunday represented by Hope—and the second non-indictment in the case of Eric Garner dying in a police choke-hold right before our Second Sunday, traditionally Peace—it seems especially dark.
I know that for many of my colleagues, serving in mainly white congregations, this was a difficult, dark Sunday. Because even--maybe especially—in Advent, we don’t want to deal with the darkness, even though that’s what it is all about.
We read passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, about the people of Israel coming out of the darkness of exile. The Gospel writers resonated with those passages when they thought about Jesus, who was born and lived during the time of the Roman occupation. They resonated with those passages when Jesus was killed, and then resurrected. They resonated with those passages when the temple was destroyed and the Jewish revolt crushed. They were in dark times. Where was the light? They found it in Jesus.
But we want to focus on the light. In many Protestant churches we have abandoned the darkness of Advent carols in favor of brighter Christmas carols. Even the dark Christmas carols such as “What Child is This,” and “I Wonder As I Wander” don’t get sung nearly as often these days, at least in my experience.
So when preachers talk about the darkness—the darkness of racism in our country, exposed by the movement “Black Lives Matter”—we sometimes want to soften the darkness. I have seen many well-meaning friends say, “Well, all lives matter, don’t they?” But what they don’t realize is that by lumping everyone together, we ignore the specific ways in which racism exists in this country. Black people are more likely than others to experience violence, to be imprisoned, to be killed (even when unarmed). White supremacist groups are on the rise again, all around us. We have to say “Black Live Matter,” acknowledging the specific ways anti-blackness has plagued our country—before we can say all.
Others don’t soften the darkness, and have preached on racism—and have received great push back from their congregation. Some have had people walk out of their church, others have received angry emails and telephone calls. This is not what Advent is supposed to be about for them. Advent is all about leading up to Christmas, not about dealing with the darkness.
Here’s the thing—we have to go through the darkest day in the Northern Hemisphere before we can get to Christmas. Before Christ can be born in us again, we have to deal with our darkness; we have to deal with our sin. What is the darkness you have been afraid to face?
To my preacher friends who have been facing the darkness: light is coming. But it may get darker still—just ask our ancestors, the prophets. To those who have been softening the darkness—where are the shadows haunting? What are you afraid to address in your congregation?