Throughout my time on internship at Messiah, I have constantly found the Arby’s sign across the street from the church intriguing. In case you hadn’t noticed the sign before, it is a giant, iridescent, flashing cowboy hat located directly across Kingston Pike from our prudently lit Messiah Lutheran Church sign. Every day as I sit in my office, I can see the sign. In the evenings when I leave the church, as the sun is setting, the Arby’s sign brightly illuminates the landscape and draws my attention.
The sign’s prominence has grown as we have adjusted our clocks for daylight savings time. The days are becoming shorter, the darkness comes earlier and earlier each evening. Darkness is becoming more and more a part of our reality. As the days get shorter and the nights longer we will head into the season of Advent. In Advent we will gather together on Wednesday evenings for a meal and for a vespers service. And as we gather each week, we will do so in the midst of the darkness. Normally when we gather to worship we do so on Sunday mornings with the sun shining. But during Advent we will gather after the sun sets.
And as we gather to worship, across the street the Arby’s sign will be glowing, flashing, and blinking. In fact, all the way up and down Kingston Pike, bright lights will dominate the darkening landscape. Due, in no small part, to our culture and society’s aversion to darkness. In the darkness there are unknowns, it limits us, we find it fearful. When home alone I find myself turning on more lights to avoid the darkness. Even our Lutheran and Christian traditions historically play into the metaphor that light is good and the darkness is bad. We spend a great deal of time running from the darkness, seeking out the light.
Yet as we head into this Advent season, our liturgy begins to accept that darkness is a part of God’s created world. Darkness becomes a predominant theme in our worship. We acknowledge that sometimes we live in darkness. Throughout the Advent season the dichotomy of Arby’s brilliantly lit sign and Messiah’s humble sign will grow more apparent. We will gather in the darkness and worship in a much darker space than we are used to. I have to admit that I enjoy the acceptance of darkness in Advent, because I find that darkness is a part of our reality. We live in the darkness of faith. We accept the darkness because it is a part of our world, of God’s world.
There is great evidence of God’s presence in the darkness. In John, Jesus meets with Nicodemus in the middle of the night. Luther writes in a commentary of Exodus and the tabernacle that, “God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light can overcome it.” To live in faith is to live in darkness. There is an aspect of uncertainty with faith. On some levels God remains a mystery to us throughout our lives. At the table and in the world we proclaim a God whose actions are mysterious to us.
Yet in the midst of the darkness, in the midst of uncertainty, we gather together in hope to proclaim a certain truth. The truth of a God who comes and dwells in the darkness of the everyday world we know. It is because of this truth that we are able to gather together in the darkness and the uncertainty of the world. While the rest of the world squirms in the darkness seeking out the light, take comfort during this Advent season that God is active and present in this world, even though it may be dark. As the Arby’s sign lights up the night sky, we gather in the darkness across the street, confident that God is here in this place.
Edit: For more on the darkness, see this recent National Geographic article, Why We Need Night. In particular:
"Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead."