In her autobiographical account of bipolar disorder, Kathryn Green-McCreight describes her writing as an engagement with “the darkness that was often my only perceived companion.” She is not alone in identifying darkness as a place of great suffering – Jesus himself did so too (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Here there is nothing to illuminate that which threatens and assails. There is no light of life nor warmth of companionship. In darkness, we cannot see behind us to remember from where we’ve come, we cannot see about us to know where we are, and we cannot see before us to know where we’re going.
Darkness is also a well-known metaphor for evil (Proverbs 4:19; 1 John 2:11; etc.). Despicable things are done in the shadows; if not literally under cover of darkness, at least in secret, without others knowing. Such things are hidden because they will earn retribution. In darkness, the weak fall prey to the designs of those who are evil.
Mysteries are also cast in darkness. Despite being one who gives light (Psalm 118:27; Isaiah 60:19; 2 Corinthians 4:6; etc.), God was shrouded in darkness when he met with Moses (Exodus 20:21); a frightening experience to be sure, but not because the darkness was evil. Within the darkness was all the unknowableness of God. Similarly, when Solomon observes, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:1) and when the Psalmist struggles to describe the tension between the darkness God makes his covering and the brightness that comes before him (Psalm 18:9-12), God is portrayed as mysterious.
The dark days of Advent are themselves symbolic of the darkness that comes before the light of the birth of Christ. Shadow edges in from dawn to dusk, shortening the day, and clouds weaken even the noonday sunlight. The physical darkness reminds us of suffering, sin, and mystery.
In the Shadow
God knows what is in the darkness (Daniel 2:22). This means he knows our pain (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15-16), he knows our sin (Psalm 69:5; Jeremiah 2:22; 1 Corinthians 4:5), and he knows what is hidden from our eyes (Luke 8:17, 10:21; 1 Corinthians 2:7, 4:5).
Consider this when reading Isaiah, who wrote, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (9:2; cf., Matthew 4:16). On those who suffer, the light of life has shone! On those who sin, the light of redemption has shone! On those who are blind, the light of sight has shone! God was (and is!) preparing a beautiful salvation for his people, and they need(ed) to trust him, because he “will lead the blind in a way that they do not know,” he “will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground” (Isaiah 42:16).
Strangely, we who live in and are acquainted with darkness mill about as lost sheep; God, who is holy, knows the darkness better than we do. The darkness was once our home, but a home like the wilderness, with all kinds of traps and diversions. We need a shepherd through and out of it. The Israelites were rebuked for failing to remember that God was their great Shepherd who led them through the deep darkness of the wilderness (Jeremiah 2:6). Amos conjures up these memories not for comfort but for conviction, identifying the dark day of the LORD (Amos 5:18-21).
Dark day of the LORD? What about the great light? What about the light shining on those who dwell in a land of deep darkness? Amos condemned those who were outwardly pious but neglected true faithfulness (i.e., hypocrites; Amos 2:6-8, 4:1). Imagine one of these hypocrites saying, “Oh yeah! Day of the LORD? Of course – yeah, man. I’m all for the day of the LORD.” Amos replies with his rebuke in 5:18-21. For those people, the day of the LORD will not bring light, but darkness, agreeing with Jesus’s condemnation (Matthew 8:12; etc.).
Beyond the Shadow
This is a powerful reminder that God both forms light and creates darkness (Isaiah 45:7), first for his glory and then for our good. The prophet Amos was ultimately sent to call Israel and Judah to repentance. Insofar as he was a prophet, declaring the true word of God to the world, he was a glimmer of the light to come; a spark in the shadow.
In Advent, we wait knowing that we have more than a spark; we have the very light of life (John 8:12). Advent reminds us that there is still a shadow cast across this world – there remains suffering, sin, and mystery. Even though the day into which God has called us is at hand (Romans 13:12), we may continue to struggle with suffering, sin, and mystery (which is why men wrote the New Testament, even as they lived in light of the resurrection). We may walk in the midst of the darkness of suffering, sin, and mystery, but not as those without a shepherd. We are the flock of Christ, and he knows our names (John 10:3). We may sojourn for a time through a dark land, but no longer are we citizens of that place; we are citizens of the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13).
It may not feel like that this winter. It may feel like seeing the beautiful lights sparkle in the homes of other people but not your own. You know that, somehow, light should adorn your home, but the creeping shadows steal it away. Just like you cannot grab hold of a string of lights and force them to come to life by sheer force of will, neither can you force the light of God’s grace.
What you can do, though, is plug the lights into the socket, trusting the power company has supplied your home with what it needs to bring those lights to life. In that same way, you can place yourself in the way of God’s grace, trusting that the means he has provided will draw you closer to him in time: sitting under the preached Word, wrestling with prayer and fasting, reading and meditating upon Scripture, embracing the fellowship of the Church, partaking of the sacraments, and so on. Even in the darkness, when these things feel like all you’re doing is holding a candle against the wind, know that the light God shined into the suffering, sinful, mysterious darkness was a humble and vulnerable baby. That child is our light and our life.