Advent: ‘Lighten Our Darkness’

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian. For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this (Isaiah 9.1-7).

Anonymous icon painter, Prophet Isaiah (18th century, first quarter) Russia (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What was

What was that ‘darkness’ wherein the ‘people walked’? It was an age of war and turmoil, destruction and death, despondency and desolation, and horror and humiliation. Moreover, it was, too, the darkness of Israel’s collective sin and disobedience. As a consequence, God had abandoned the nation to its enemies, who conquered the land and removed the people into captivity. These were evil times about which, and into, which Isaiah wrote. But they neither hopeless nor irredeemable times, for all that.

For this same people had, in the midst of that darkness, ‘seen a great light’. Oddly, the prophet Isaiah uses the past tense, even though the revelation had not yet been disclosed. Nevertheless, from his perspective the deal was as good as done. Because when God intended something to take place, it did. However, this promise to and through Isaiah came without a date stamp. ‘How long, O Lord?’, the prophet must have often cried. No answer. Only trust.

What was that ‘light’ which the people had seen? It was at least as bright as the darkness had been black, and everything that the darkness was not. That light would vanquish death’s shadow, put an end to war, usher in an age of peace, and bring deliverance from bondage, oppression, and despair. It was the light of ‘the glory of Lord’, like that which shone about the shepherds sat upon the hillside when the angels visited. A light heralding ‘good tidings of great joy’ — a celebratory joy, such as had been experienced by the Israelites in better days, when God bountifully blessed their harvest. Big joy!

This ‘great light’ would not be in the form of some abstract emanation of God’s nature. Rather, it would be embodied: focused within a child. He was God’s gift from heaven to those who either preferred the darkness, or couldn’t get their head around the light, or refused to turn to it.

Govert Flinck, Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds (1639) France (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What is

Nearly 800 years passed before the light arose. That was a long time for a prophecy to be fulfilled and a baby to be delivered. However, this child was born exactly on time – ‘in the fullness of time’, the Apostle Paul wrote. Which is the schedule that God always observes when he makes good on his promises and answers to prayer.

Who was this ‘son’? Not even Isaiah knew his name. God had revealed only his titles.  From them, his reputation shone forth: he would be the greatest-ever ruler; extraordinary; the embodiment of wisdom, justice, and peace; divine and eternal; and one whose power and sway could not be contained.

However, having been announced by the Angel of Lord no less and worshipped by the shepherds and Magi, this new-born son proceeded to spend the next thirty years living in the shadows, until he walked out of Galilee and into Jordon to meet John the Baptist. Moreover, his life and astonishingly short ministry hardly met with the expectations prophesied by Isaiah. Here was no great leader with a powerbase and mighty army; just a dozen hapless fishermen and a tax collector, for the most part. Immanuel spent his life causing division and disruption, rather than spreading peace. He exercised judgement and discerned hypocrisy, but presided over no court from which to dispose justice and punishment. At the end of his life he seemed utterly powerless against the authorities, and was strung-up on a gibbet alongside common criminals. The only recognition of his kingship was in the form of an ambivalent inscription, which Pontius Pilate had nailed above his head. And yet, this great light set as it had dawned: ‘just at the right time’. And yet, his teaching had an authority unlike that of other teachers of the law. And yet, he healed the incurable, transformed substances, suspended the law of gravity, subverted natural causes, raised the dead (including himself), and returned to heaven.

Anonymous (known as the Master of the Kefermarkt Altarpiece) Nativity of Christ (c.1497) Pilgrimage Church of Kefermarkt, Austria (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What is to come

Christ’s first advent was only a partial realisation of Isaiah’s prophecy. Today, wars persist and proliferate, global peace remains a pipe-dream, while injustice, oppression, discrimination, and inequalities go largely unabated. The Kingdom of Christ resides within those who believe, Christians believe. But patently, it doesn’t yet extend beyond them to anything like the measure envisaged by the prophet.

Full fulfilment will come only at Christ’s second advent, when he will return as the triumphant Messiah. Then, ‘every knee shall bow [to him], and every tongue shall confess to God’. Then, he ‘shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain’. Thereafter, the son will establish a ‘city wherein there is no darkness; one that needs not the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof’.

Christians approach Advent while looking in two directions simultaneously: retrospectively, to Isaiah’s prophecy and the events of the Nativity; and prospectively, to Christ’s parousia. They receive the advent of the past and present as the first of two instalments. Christ — ‘the true light’ — has come into the world. And it is he who encourages all to walk in his light, so that their shadows may be dispelled; their hurts, grief, and pain, made bearable; and their repentance and restoration, possible.

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