Isaiah gives voice to our Advent hope, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
I’ve been reading a book titled “Bittersweet” by author Susan Cain. In the book, she acknowledges a deep admiration for musician Leonard Cohen who wrote the wildly popular, 1984 hit song, “Hallelujah.” He sings his “Hallelujah” in very minor key, it’s “Hallelujah” dressed in melancholy. He sings “Hallelujah” 32 times in the 4 minutes and 39 seconds it takes to sing his song. He sings “Hallelujah” but you’re not sure he’s convinced.
He sings it with a choir at points, but the extra voices don’t change the tune, he’s still not sure. Quoting Cohen’s biographer, Cain writes, “[Cohen] … felt at home in darkness, the way he wrote, the way he worked. But in the end, it really was about finding the light.” I think that’s Advent. “It really [is] about finding the light.”
Advent is without question one of my favorite seasons of the year. Liturgically speaking, it’s the very beginning of the church year. Advent gives space and makes room for our longings to sit with us for a while, to share their beautiful ache with us for just a bit. In a fast world full of distraction and the hectic pursuit of whatever is next Advent is an invitation to slow down, to honesty, to light a candle in a dark world as a way to say, “it could be, maybe it will be, so much better.” I think it’s interesting that the church year starts with longing, it starts with the ache. Hallelujah in a minor key.
The prophet Isaiah may be Advent’s spokesman. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah wrote. He was writing for a people in a world of pain, to be fair their pain was, in too many ways, self-inflicted, but it still hurt, it was still dark. And Isaiah lights a candle of hope, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
I love Advent for lots of reasons. I love the candles lit on our dining room table flickering hope. I love the shadows our few candles reveal as they dance across our dining room walls, maybe pointing toward a few shadows in my own life too. I love the interplay between light and dark that Advent invites us to notice.
In Cain’s book she refers to a mystical sect of Judaism known as Kabbalah Jews. She writes, “[Kabbalah Judaism] teaches that all of creation was once a vessel filled with holy light. But it shattered, and now the shards of divinity are scattered everywhere, amidst the pain and ugliness. Our task is to gather up these fragments wherever we find them.”
I’d have to meet a Kabbalah Jew to understand more fully what exactly that might mean but there’s something intriguing to me about it. Something’s been shattered, the light has been scattered and a few of us ought to go looking for the light. There’s plenty of darkness, you hear all about it all the time; the notifications on your phone, the feeds on your social media accounts, the headlines on any of the whatever news sources you pay attention to. What if this advent rather than being consumed by the darkness we take our cues from Isaiah? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Maybe this Advent we could look for the light together.
We’re giving Advent 2023 a theme, we’re calling it “walking in darkness, looking for light.” That’s probably why we light candles each week in Advent; to attend to the light, to wake up to the light, to prepare a way for the light. “It really [is] about finding the light.” Our hope is that this journal will be a companion for any of you who might know what it’s like to be walking in darkness, looking for light.