A couple of years ago, Jeremy and I were visiting his mother in Chattanooga, TN, and we decided to go on an excursion that called itself the “Lost Sea Adventure.” Nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, The Lost Sea Adventure takes you through an enormous winding cave, following a dimly lit trail deep down into the earth, that leads to the largest underground lake in the United States.
On our tour through the cave, I was continually surprised by how hard it was to see, even though the trail was lined with lights. The cave was so vast that the lamps dotting the trail were just enough to cast a dim light on our path, and nothing more. At one point, we reached one of the largest “rooms” in the cave, and the guide asked us all to stand still. He then proceeded to turn the lights off, so that we could experience literal complete darkness. Now, I’ve been in some pretty dark places, but I’d never been in absolute pitch black before. I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust, but as the guide warned us, that can’t happen in a room where absolutely zero light gets in. As the guide continued to talk to us through the overwhelming darkness, I quickly – and somewhat irrationally – became nervous and uncomfortable. I suddenly became very aware that I had no idea how close anyone was to me. And my imagination started to run wild very quickly. What if someone was stupid enough to try to walk through the darkness and bumped into me and knocked me over? I had no idea what was in front of me. Would I dash my head against a rock? Were there bats? Would they suddenly fly out in droves and attack us, like in a bad horror movie? If I do get attacked by a bat, what are the resources around me to fight it off? I can’t see anything – where is there a stick or a rock on the ground to reach for? What if my leg itches and I reach down to scratch it and bump somebody accidentally and they fall over and what if they knock someone else over on their way down and what if it’s just one horrific invisible domino effect and OMG How long until the lights come back on?
When the lights finally did come back on, I was surprised by 2 things: 1) It was still so dim that my eyes didn’t need to adjust to the light; and 2) I noticed every little spot of light that showed the way, and I was so grateful for them. Those bright spots along an otherwise dark trail guided all the way to the mouth of the cave where we entered the daylight again.
If you want to know what the season of Advent is meant to be, it’s a lot like being in a cave with the lights turned off. This is the spiritual season of waiting in darkness. In some ways, literally – it’s the darkest time of the year, with the least amount of daylight. And in many ways, figuratively: for, oh, what darkness we are waiting in right now. Corruption from the highest levels of governance in our land, the deep divisions that have been forged between so many groups of people in our country, the insistence that those who differ from us are our enemies, the evils of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, and greed… all of this is casting dark shadows on our world.
But if the season of Advent is like being in a dark cave, then the spiritual work of Advent is the work of attending to the lamps – however dim – along the path. It is the work of courageously staying in the dimly lit places, not knowing what may lie ahead, and recognizing that the path, otherwise dark, is dotted with glimmers of brightness to guide our way, trusting they will guide you into the light of day.
And most importantly, it is the work of entering into close proximity with the shadows of darkness in which we are living. It is an uncomfortable place to be, but it is the only place from which we can do real Advent work. It is only from inside the cave that we can see, hear, and witness the darkness we ask God to drive out. It is the dark cave, not the sunny day, into which we must carry a lantern.
I want to say something about what I mean about this proximity.
Several years ago, I was taking a ballet class at the Joffrey School on 6th Ave. In the middle of a tendu combination, we were interrupted by loud shouts outside the classroom window – shouts so compelling that we stopped dancing and all gathered at the window to see what it was. Our curiosity quickly turned somber as we realized what the shouts were for. It happened to be the day after the not-guilty verdict for police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, MS. The shouts we heard were the cries of protest and lament at the injustice of it all. I marveled at how proximity and location affected our response to this outcry. Had my ballet class been at the Ailey Extension on 9th Ave, or Shockra Studio where I used to teach on E 28th Street, there would have been no interruption to the class. There wouldn’t even have been an awareness of the protests until or unless I’d checked the news after leaving the studio. Stories of protests, even in my own city, would have been just that: stories. Distant, far away events from which I was spiritually, physically, and emotionally removed. But suddenly, 3 floors above this massive protest, as the chants of thousands of people floated into our studio, into our ears, and into our hearts, we could feel their pain and anger as they marched on. For several minutes, we all stood still, watching out the window and unsure whether it was appropriate to continue class. It was this proximity that made us uncomfortable, not the protest itself. Being witness to their anger and hurt, we could not help but be affected by it; we could not help but care.
There is an important link between discomfort, proximity, and care. Theologian Henri Nouwen writes: “Jesus indeed cared. Being pragmatists, we say, ‘That is obvious: He fed the hungry, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the crippled walk, and the dead live. He indeed cared.’ But by being surprised by all the remarkable things he did, we forget that Jesus did not give food to the many without having received some loaves and fishes from a stranger in the crowd; that he did not return the boy of Nain to his widowed mother without having felt her sorrow; that he did not raise Lazarus from the grave without tears and a sigh of distress that came straight from the heart. What we see, and like to see, is cure and change. But what we do not see and do not want to see is care: the participation in the pain, the solidarity in suffering, the sharing in the experience of brokenness.”[i]
Living alongside stories of suffering might not feel particularly festive or in keeping with the holiday season, but that is the step we take when we do real Advent work. Those are Advent stories. Those are the stories we are called to accompany in defiance of their darkness.
So today, I wonder, how is God inviting you to walk out of the sunlight and into the cave? Where are the dark places God is drawing you closer to? And where, in the dimness, is God still illuminating the way?
I know, we live in a pretty bleak world, especially when we see the headlines every day. And it’s tempting to give into the idea that no amount of light can overcome the forces of darkness that encircle us.
But here’s the thing: We can let the headlines define our stance, or we can work until our stance defines the headlines. We can hide our light under a bushel, or we can bravely put it on the lampstand. We can avoid the darkness, or we can illuminate a path through it with the radiance of God’s light and love. The world may feel like a dark cave, but the Savior we are waiting for shows us how to find the courage to walk into it, and keep the lamps of God’s light trimmed and burning along the way.
In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” For our hope is in the God of light; “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)[i] Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life