Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah proclaimed a message of consolation with the message that their sins had been atoned for. A voice cried out: “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord.” All valleys will be filled in and every mountain shall be laid low. God will care for all. Mark’s Gospel begins quoting the passage from Isaiah and introduced John the Baptist. John appeared in the wilderness and proclaimed repentance and that another will come who is greater than him.
It’s often said that “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” It sounds great but it’s not true. It’s darkest at midnight, not just before sunrise. Years ago I had the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. I was on a silent retreat at the Jesuit retreat center in Gloucester, Massachusetts and I took my seat about an hour before sunrise. A good 45 minutes before sunrise we could see the sky brightening and by the time the sun came up it was already light.
But there is still truth in the idea that it is darkest before the dawn. Apologies to nightowls but for most of us darkness is hard. Winter is hard. Speaking only for myself, when I lived in Boston winter wasn’t difficult because of the cold or the snow, but because it started to get dark around 3:30. And while I knew that daylight would increase after December 21st it was still hard.
So what do we do about that? When people are struggling with a loss we sometimes talk with them about their “history of coping.” In other words we ask about previous times when they’ve struggled with grief issues and how they’ve gotten through. It’s often helpful to remind people of the times when they thought the darkness would last forever (and didn’t), but not always. Sometimes the pain is so intense that they respond: “But this time is worse. I’m in hole and maybe this time I won’t get out.”
Part of the reason it’s a tough dance because many of us believe that if our faith is strong enough we shouldn’t suffer or grieve. My friend Fr. Larry Rice once said something that has stayed with me: “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is despair.” If we wonder if the darkness will ever end, or doubt that it will, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
We celebrate Advent because we often find ourselves fighting against despair and in the midst of the darkness we need to seek out and find faith and light. The imagery of our first reading from Isaiah brims with this truth: God is not part of the darkness but God is indeed in charge of the light. I hope we’ve all had the experience of lighting a candle (or turning on the light on your smartphone) in a dark place and being moved by the power of such a small light.
But even this pales in comparison to the light we see in Jesus. In today’s Gospel we get our first glimpse of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Clearly he was foretold in Isaiah and he’s a fascinating character. He preached at a difficult time when the Israelites were dominated by the pagan Romans who tolerated other religious practices as long as they didn’t interfere with the Roman’s governance.
Frankly, John looked and acted like a crazy person, someone easy to dismiss. But he proclaimed such a strong message that it ended up costing him his life.
And he was the light in the darkness. His message wasn’t easy or lukewarm: he didn’t tell people to just hang on and be patient but instead they needed to repent and return to the Lord. This can be touchy because it may sound like Scripture telling us that we are suffering because we are sinning and need to repent.
Sometimes that’s true but it’s often not. When John calls for repentance I like to think he’s also telling us to look in a different direction. I think it’s safe to say that the people of his time who sought the Messiah never expected to look at someone who ate locusts.
When we’re in darkness and seek the light we don’t know where the light will come from. If we say “well that’s the wrong light” we miss the point. Light is light and light comes from God.
I write this at a difficult time. We’ve been dealing with COVID 19 for nearly a year now, and if anything speaks to universal suffering, it’s COVID. Many of us know someone who has died, most of us know someone has gotten sick, and we all worry that we, or someone we love, may be next. Darkness is not hard to find. And we get mixed messages about where to look for the light. Some say the light comes only from masks; others look to a vaccine; others insist there is no darkness and COVID is a hoax.
In this situation the light will no doubt come from a combination of masks, vaccines, social distancing, and listening to the smartest people in the room.
When the history of COVIC is written it will be said that it created darkness but it will also be written how we survived and even thrived. Our faith tells us that.
John the Baptist promises that Jesus on the way. If we doubt, that’s OK. On some level it means we are seeking the light and we don’t know which way to look. But doubt means that we continue to look.
Today we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent and we are halfway through. This is, indeed, midnight, the darkest time. But if we keep the faith and keep looking for the light, the light will come.