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Advent reflection

When all has collapsed, mystery can enter


Darkness has covered the land. The days grow shorter and colder. When the sun appears, it is thin, milky and does not hang long in the sky. The bare branches of trees grope at the clouds as though to tear them open and release their loads. It is Advent, and along with nature, we are a people waiting, groping. “Drop down dew, you heavens,” we sing. “Let the clouds rain forth the Just One. Let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior.”

If anxiety against the darkness overtakes us and we shut it out, then we never know nightfall. We live our lives in the glare of lights and then we never see God against the backdrop of night. The darkness can elicit in us longing as holy as the lovers, humility as humble as the rock, hope as wakeful as the hills, trust as faithful as the stars. Then we begin to see God as God really is. The darkness of longing, of hoping, of praying and waiting is as much a part of life’s mysteries as is the light.

In Advent, we are invited to enter the darkness and sit there to learn from it the lessons we avoid in the light. We adjust our sight to the night. In the stillness of the dark we make ourselves vulnerable to God. We call on the mystery waiting to enter the life that has become humdrum, or depressed, or anxious over many things, or angry at the state of the world and the disrepair of our lives. The mystery we await is not so much seen as it is a way of seeing, not so much an object known as a manner of knowing. We prepare the soil for the fall of dew and seed.

Peter Chrysologus in the fifth century said: “God saw the world falling to ruin because of fear and immediately acted to call it back with love. God invited it by grace, preserved it by love and embraced it with compassion.”

In womb-like darkness, the seed springs to life. In darkness, out of sight, mystery takes hold in our flesh and becomes part of our blood and bone. Rather than rushing about trying to do poor imitations of God, we become harbors of divine mystery and are asked to bring God to birth into a world that aches for healing salvation.

This consciousness does not cause us to desert the everyday interactions we have with our sisters and brothers. It does not negate what is material and concrete. Rather, it turns to sacredness and symbol, every experience and human interaction as able to reveal and transform. Instead of endlessly manipulating and worrying the surface of reality, we have finally allowed ourselves to reach the heart of meaning.

For many, the events we have experienced this fall have plunged us into a darkness not of our asking. But that is the wisdom of nature’s seasons and the church’s liturgical seasons -- to give us a physical and spiritual darkness to make sense of the dark experience we just had. We rail at heaven. We ask: Where is God? And promptly, in its own curious way, the questions open us to mystery and to grace. In our sudden vulnerability, we discover horror and beauty almost in equal measure. The horror we engaged together, but the beauty broke in like endless surprises: Real heroes appeared. People slowed down. They looked each other in the eye. They cooked and fed and cleaned and gave of themselves. Families reconciled and embraced. Some shocked themselves and returned to their churches and linked arms in solidarity before God. Mystery broke through.

The experience that life is a gift is followed by the anxious awareness that the gift is not guaranteed. All the indignities and disenchantment of hostile invasions, of colossal disaster, of suffering, of loss, of death await us. And all our devices to make life safe -- investing monies, building up the military, stockpiling antibiotics -- are finally not so reliable as we thought. When all has collapsed, mystery can enter.

We are, of course, creatures of habit and it will not take us long to scramble back to our old ways, to emerge from the darkness determined to grasp what we thought we lost.

Or, because of Advent, we will know that God has given us the charge to bring mystery to birth in our own flesh, being and action. This is the end of time. This is the beginning of time. Now is the hour to rise from sleep. Now is the hour of our salvation.

Gertrud Mueller Nelson is an artist, liturgist and author of To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Paulist Press).

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001