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
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
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.
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
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
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
Photo by Dario Giannobile: Moon dawn at Punta Mola Plemmirio