I seem to be having something of a “Dark Advent”. This year, the early beginning of jollity and glitter have left me rather cold. The forced expectations of everything being right with the world are particularly jarring. I am feeling a bit “Bah! Humbug!”, for much of it is.
What I have discovered, waiting in the dark, is that I’m not alone here. In fact, there is a whole rich tradition, a whole season dedicated to such waiting, and what is more, you find that there are other people here, too.
Hope, after all, is at home in the dark, in places that really need it. Advent is the season of almost unreasonable hope. Whether we feel the sting of expectation over our material provision – the perfect presents, the perfect dinner, the perfect home – or in terms of relationships – it’s all about family, after all, sitting happily together – we seem to be missing the point.
The point, as I seem to be finding, is that we are indeed waiting in the dark. We are waiting for God with us. For, astonishingly, God joins us in the dark. God does not wait for us to clean up. God does not expect the perfect Christmas. Jesus was, after all, born in a stable of all places, literally in the poop. I also remember that they went to Joseph’s family town, and no one opened their doors to the disgraced Mary, except the one who lent them the stable. Not the perfect family, either, then. Things are dark indeed, before the light of glory blazes out. Before we see the light that is coming, that has already come.
The first Sunday of Advent, we went to an evening service at the beautiful Ely Cathedral. We started in near darkness, and gradually, the light of candles spread. We sang, and heard sung, songs and readings of longing, of waiting, of expectation. Songs sung very much in the darkness, but looking for the light. Songs of a long waiting. It seemed to me to reflect both a great truth, and my own experience of this season.
So, this poem about my pile of wood for the winter is a poem of perhaps unpromising, dry, cold material, that will, in time, spark in our grate, and warm us. Our local woodman brings us logs that are a mixture of off cuts from his tree surgery, and cleared wood to keep the heaths open. It’s hard to imagine, looking at it, that it contains so much heat to be released by the lighting of one match.
So Advent, a time of waiting, and of preparation, can seem as hard as stacking wood in the freezing cold. But once again, we find the work of hope, even unreasonable seeming hope, can bring light, and warmth, into the chill of waiting. We’re not aiming for perfection here. We’re certainly not aiming for pretense. We’re aiming to lift our eyes to see that hope is coming, and we can welcome it, and be warmed by it, even in the coldest of places.
I love building this woodpile,
gloved hands holding frost-rimed logs,
piecing together the structure,
small circles nestled between large –
the colours of the dry wood,
orange, deep yellow, brown bark
mottled grey by lichen,
each one speaks of the years it has known,
the weather it has withstood,
the earth where it grew.
Each tree’s wood has its own
qualities – ease of lighting,
denseness, brightness of flame,
and these I appraise as I build.
Wood bought, wood gathered,
wood cut from our place, piece by piece
the pile grows, our defence against
the cold, the long nights of winter,
the snow that has already begun.
By chill sunset my aching back,
my arms, heavy with the weight of wood,
are glowing with the heat
of fires that are to come.