The Dance of Light and Dark

by Cara Ellen Modisett

Advent IV reflection at the 5:30 service, December 20, 2015.

We move through darkness and light by turns this season, the darkest of the year, at least in this hemisphere, not quite the coldest but moving towards the deep ice of winter, when the afternoon becomes evening and the evening becomes night every day sooner and quieter and more suddenly in this time of year when the night is longest – tomorrow night.

We celebrate one of our most joyous seasons in the darkest time of the year – in the bleak midwinter, we remember the rose that blooms – we recognize the utter beauty that breaks heart and breaks forth at the same time. 

Winter is another kind of existence: we live in the cold wind that awakens us when we step outside, we watch for the snow that begins with dust, then transforms the world, silver under moonlight, sparkling under sunlight, making our voices clear and sharp and immediate and tiny in the cold expanse of the air. We gather together in sanctuary, warm and light inside, cold and dark outside, the early night sky arching over steeple and columns and the peaks of the roof, holding in it the deep mystery of the universe, lit by stars. 

 Daylight is short, and the night is long. 

Some years ago, in college, I studied the stars one summer month, an astronomy class I needed for a science credit. It was a difficult but fascinating several weeks that involved math and physics, subjects I had always found intimidating. We met in the university’s planetarium for three or four hours every day. The combination of early summer mornings, comfortable, reclining seats and – probably – math – meant that when our professor turned off the lights to show us constellations and talk about parallax, Greek mythology, apparent magnitude, the paths of comets, we almost always heard a few snores float up from the class.

Amidst all the math, though, there was beauty – in the mythology and the stories behind the constellations, and even in the science. One particular piece of information I never forgot: the stars of the winter sky are the brightest stars of the year – Sirius, Betelgeuse, Rigel, the constellation Orion, the great hunter who walks across the sky through fall and winter. 

The reason is twofold. During the summer, our part of the earth is looking inward, toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy, thick and bright with stars. During the winter, we are looking outward, into the arm of the galaxy, where our solar system lives, to our neighbors. These stars are brighter because they are closer to us, and they are also brighter because we are looking toward the universe beyond our familiar Milky Way – we are seeing them not against the backdrop of the dense bright center of the galaxy, but instead, shining brightly against the outer darkness.

Daylight is short, and the night is long.

The light of this season is especially beautiful because it flickers and glows against the darkness of the coming winter. They dance with each other, the light and the dark, when the cold wind breathes on the candles we light, when the moon shines on the breast of the new-fallen snow, when we hang lights on the branches of evergreens and watch their sparkle reflect in nighttime windows. We move through Advent, we mark the longest night, the beginning of winter, and three nights later, Christmas, we celebrate the Light that shines in the darkness. The long nights this time of year make the Light, the Birth we anticipate during the weeks of Advent, waiting for us, that much brighter, that much more joyous, on the other side of the dark.

And that dance of light and dark reminds us that in all times of the year, we are moving through both light and shadow. Mary knew it: a shining angel brought her the news that she carried a child, and a star would illuminate his birth, but he was born a savior who would die in front of her eyes.  

It is easy to remember that darkness is always there, but harder to remember that joy is always there too. Mary knew it. A girl, betrothed but not married, in a day and time when she, as a woman, had no power, finding out she was carrying what to the rest of the world could have been perceived as an illegitimate child – and then an angel telling her that child will save the world – what does she do? She rejoices with her friend Elizabeth, and she sings.

We all know it. In a world where we feel we have no power over the things that scare us, where goodness gets lost in the darkness of conflict and politics and commercialism and math problems, we light candles, we put them in the windows, we gather together in sanctuary, warm and light inside, cold and dark outside, to watch for the star shining in the night, and to sing in Christmas morning.

Fragments from “In the Bleak Midwinter” (Christina Rossetti), “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” (Friedrich L. C. Layriz) and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (Clement Clarke Moore)

Photo by Dario Giannobile: Moon dawn at Punta Mola Plemmirio

Posted by Cara Modisett at 5:30 PM
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