The celebration of Advent, I have decided, is a little like living in the twilight zone.
I know this because for a few uncanny hours last week, I actually lived the twilight zone and it was a curiously spiritual experience.
On the flight home from England, we routed through Reykjavik. When we took off from Iceland for the long flight home, it was about five o’ clock in the evening. Our plane soared up into the open, navy bowl of the night. Limpid, inky darkness arced above us, stabbed by a single star. But westward the navy paled to turquoise as a great bonfire of a sunset blazed on the horizon. The sun burned just beyond our sight, but her light leapt over the rim of the earth in a flaming line of burnished orange and gold. I pressed my face against the window as we sped toward that light, out of the shadow, reaching toward the bright horizon.
We were in great darkness but we saw a great light.
Through all the long hours of that journey, we chased it. For awhile we were neck and neck. I thought the night would fade. The black above lightened as we flew onward, the horizon brightened to pure gold and the sky filled with a faint, pearled sheen of blue. I found myself hungering for day, leaning a little forward in my seat, wanting the darkness to finally end. I found the dim, ever-evening oppressive. Perhaps the night could be borne if I did not have such a glorious day in sight, but the light set desire in my bones so that my whole being reached toward the sun I could not quite see. I could not bear to be left in the dark.
I feel the same way in Advent. The coming of Christmastime always makes me restless because the beauty of Christ burns so brightly on its horizon and my whole being reaches toward it. The candles and starry Christmas lights, the fir scents and haunting songs of this season come to me as the bonfire blaze of a great celebration. When I was a child, the mystery at the heart of it all felt very close, close enough almost to hold in my hands. But each year it moves a little farther beyond my grasp. The older I grow, the harder I have to reach after that easy wonder of Christmas. Like the sun on my twilit flight, joy sometimes hovers just beyond my touch. Adulthood has made me aware of the darkness, and of myself as one who walks in darkness. Now I enter the yearly rhythms of decoration, of song and feasting with as much vim as I can muster. I pray the great Advent prayers, I lift up my soul and reach with all that I am toward the light of Christ. But I cannot often grasp it. I cannot even force my own heart to feel the joy I desire. Often, I see the beauties of this season as if from a distance. I honor their promise, and yet, I grieve.
I dwell still in the shadowlands. Here, care and grief, hard work and failure make an evening shadow of life on earth. I see the great hope burning ahead, but it pains me to know that I cannot hold it yet. I move toward it by faith, trying to form my days to reflect the light instead of the darkness. I choose beauty. I practice celebration. But sometimes I feel that I am chasing a day that will never dawn upon me in this world. I know that in Advent we contemplate a promise fulfilled, but here on earth the darkness remains and we wait again through the second advent of the kingdom begun, but not quite come. Amidst the beauties of this season, I find it often hard to bear the now and not yet of Christ.
I thought of this on that strange, twilit flight, for both the Advent season and an old set of troubles and perplexities awaited me at home. For some reason it troubled me that we never caught the daylight. I felt it was an ominous sign. By the time we landed night had taken the world in his strong, cold hands, and day breathed its last over the mountains. I went to sleep that night strangely grieved.
I woke abruptly in the wee small’s, fully alert with the unwelcome wakefulness of jet lag. I felt the darkness as a presence that pressed upon me. I remembered the long, strange journey in the twilight and for a bewildered moment wondered if morning would ever come. I turned on my lamp and sat in my reading chair, cold hands curved round a cup of coffee. Since Advent was soon to begin, I took up my Bible, poor, bent old book, abused in my wanderings, worn by my restless hands. I turned to Luke in search of the Christmas story, assuming that devotion would be a struggle on this particular morning.
But Mary stopped me in my tracks. Her story, to my great surprise, met me in the darkness of my own heart and challenged me to understand the coming of light in an entirely new way. I sat there in the dark-before-dawn shadows and the restlessness I felt subsided into wonder as I read the tale of the mother of God. I realized that she was everything I am not. That sturdy-hearted girl had a faith that made an open door so that God could join us in the darkness. She opened her hands to mystery. She let God make her a great promise and then she lived the long, dark days of waiting for its fulfillment. She did not strive and doubt; she believed. Elizabeth’s words (in Luke 1:45) to Mary struck me hard: blessed is she who believed what had been promised to her.
For the rest of those black morning hours, I read everything I could find about Mary, this one brave woman who took God at his word. Her almost matter-of-fact faith is the first thing I saw, a trust that did not waver but asked the pertinent questions, accepted the answers, and believed. But then, her pondering. Twice it is said of Mary that she “treasured these things in her heart,” or “pondered them.” In the twilight zone of my own faith, I read those words and learned something about light that I had never taken the time to notice.
Idealist that I am, I live hungry. I am always reaching, thinking that the kingdom of God is something I can take in my hands and force to come on earth. I always forget that the kingdom comes first in the heart. Mary reminded me, for she did not look to the outer world to confirm her faith or satisfy her hope. She looked within. A great light had come to dwell within her and she turned her eyes to its beauty. She fixed her inner sight on the presence of God, with us. She turned her eyes from the twilight zone without to the dawn within. Her pondering enabled her to look then, on the outer world, not with the eyes of hungry doubt, but with the eyes of praise.
“My soul magnifies the Lord…”
This year, with Mary’s help, I think I may be learning how to see as well. Day has come. But it has come as a seed planted in my heart, eternal morning buried in the loamy earth of my soul. Not outside, a thing to be chased, but in, a thing to contemplate. Slowly, slowly it grows. Perhaps the work of Advent is just to join Mary, the first one in which the great Light was sown, in “pondering these things.” I am learning not to reach, but to watch. I cannot catch the joy of Christmas any more than I could catch the daylight on that twilit flight. And even if I could, the day would only fade again to night and the festal stuff of Christmas would shrivel in my hungry grip, a broken goodness unable to offer me peace. But when I look upon the celebration of this season from that still, pondering place within my heart, I see the great Love to which this holy day and all its lovely trapping points.
My joy in Christmas is growing again, for morning is indeed within my grasp. It’s just a seed as yet. But it will grow into a day on which the sun will never set. No more fear of the twilight zone for me. I’ll watch and wait. I’ll ponder these things, because I’m with Mary. I believe.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.