Chanukah — the Jewish Festival of Lights — started at sundown last night. Advent — often referred to as the Season of Light in Christian contexts — began this past Sunday.
In geological terms, the confluence of these two religious seasons of light kicks up a lot of my contrarian sediment. In astrological terms, when these seasons roll around, the bull-girl in me feels like stomping my hooves and bellowing, “Why don’t we ever celebrate the bounty of darkness?? Snort!”
I get why the pre-Edisonian agrarian cultures of the Northern Hemisphere would have wanted, even needed, to celebrate light as the dark days of winter grew longer and colder, bringing with them the sorts of blights and diseases that thrive when people find themselves in closer quarters with less fresh air.
But in the technological context of my urban post-industrial culture, it feels to me almost impossible to get away from light. Clocks glow in the dark. Electronic devices have LED indicators that glow red or orange or green to indicate that they are plugged in and ready to go. Streetlights come on at dusk and remain lit until dawn.
So when Advent begins, and we start singing hymns and hearing scriptures and prayers that equate light with hope, promise, salvation, goodness, cleanliness, and all other things bright and beautiful, my impulse is to defend darkness’ bad reputation. Why should light get all the good press?
GForce asked me once, “What did I do when I was born? Who did I look at? What did I say?” I explained that when she was born, she moved from the dark, cozy environment of my body into a hospital room that was both brightly lit and set to an ambient temperature that was sub-optimal for a new person who was both naked and wet. I added, “So what you did was you had your eyes slammed shut, your hands were balled up into cranky fists, and you were screaming your head off.” I suspect she had a different scenario in mind — perhaps a gauzy, Christmas pageant-style birth — because her response was to guffaw in disbelief.
I reflect a lot on that conversation, and my pregnancy, during Advent. One of the refrains of Advent — between hymns, readings, and the omnipresence of Handel’s “Messiah” — is the line from the beginning of Chapter 9 in Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Whenever I hear that line, I’m reminded that when I’ve been walking in darkness, great light is blinding — at least momentarily.
I much prefer when the mysteries that darkness protects — such as the growth of an infant, the spinning of the earth, the weird wisdom of dreams — are illuminated more gradually, and less with the “Let’s put on a show!” grandeur of Isaiah. When the mysteries of darkness are revealed one candle at a time, as in Chanukah and Advent, we stand a much better chance of greeting the revelation with our eyes wide open, not squeezed up into two little slits.
It seems to me that the candles of these seasons are, by their humble nature, designed to NOT provide a great light. Rather, the flickering nature of candlelight seems inseparable from the darkness that laps at the edges of the candles’ glow. With that image in mind, I offer you an homage to the often overlooked and undervalued shadows of Chanukah and Advent: Wendell Berry’s tiny poem “To know the dark.”
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
There are lots of songs about darkness. I waffled around between The Weepies’ “Lighting Candles,” KT Tunstall’s “Through the Dark” and many others. But I’ve decided to go with my first thought: this song based on Lord Byron’s poem “Dark Lochnagar.” I’ve loved the Scottish duo The Corries since I was first introduced to their music in 1983 by the best boss I ever worked for, a Scotsman who hailed from Dundee. In particular, I love the Adventy ache I feel when they harmonize the line, “I sigh for the valley o’ Dark Lochnagar.”