Bordering on the Shades of Death: The Choice of Advent

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Every autumn, the shift from daylight to standard time hits me like a ton of bricks. Here in Maryland, the sun has set before 5:00 p.m. since November 6 and will continue to do so until January 10. Through the seasons of Advent and Christmas, many of us in the global north are forced to beat a tactical retreat from the outside world. We have fewer precious hours of daylight, the weather is often too cold or dreary to spend as many of those hours outside, and in this third year of the pandemic, we still find ourselves quarantining and avoiding unnecessary trips. 

I feel a paradoxical mixture of anxious excitement and drowsy boredom this time of the year. On the one hand, it’s one of the busiest months for folks who work in churches. There are book studies to lead, cantatas and pageants to plan, Christmas Eve services to prepare, and charitable work to do. For churches, this is the big show, one of a few times each year when we might see some new faces. And of course, that’s coupled with the general excitement of Christmas, a complicated time but one in which we feel like we should be happy even if we aren’t.

On the other hand, the lengthening nights of the season seem unreceptive to so much activity. Every evening, it feels later a little earlier, if that makes any sense. As we’re forced to rely more on the harsh glow of electric lights to navigate our surroundings, it feels like we should be doing less, not more. It feels like the weight of the night all around us should be slowing us down, not pushing us to work even harder emotionally and physically.

Several of the poems Charles Wesley penned in Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord (1745) capture the emotional complexities of this time of year. Hymn XI in particular leans into the darkness and anticipation that mark Advent and Christmas. We live, as Wesley wrote, in a “deary dwelling [that] Borders on the shades of death.” We wait, as he waited, for “love’s revealing [to] Dissipate the clouds beneath.” 

But for us, disquiet and dreariness are not limited to the weeks leading up to and following Christmas, as they are in Wesley’s poems. The combination of excitement and drowsiness, of eagerness and anxiety, flows through so much in our present world. It can feel as though we’re living in a perpetual Advent. Sure, we see glimmers of hope for a more just and equitable future. As I write this, Congress is working out the details of the Respect for Marriage Act, a small but significant step toward legal protections for marginalized people in the United States, including many within the church. But we are also weighed down by astronomical challenges. More than half of Gen Z surveyed by The Lancet say that they believe humanity’s inaction on climate change has doomed us. Forty percent have said that their distress about the future has impacted their choice about having children. 

For those of us for whom the early nightfall quickly gets old, or who are exhausted by the dim prospects that we see in our world’s futures, Advent offers us a kindred spirit. This is the season for those who struggle to remain hopeful. It’s a season for dogged resistance, for naming the evil of the world as it is and stubbornly insisting that its victory is not our fate. If there were ever a time to embrace our fears and anxieties, Advent is that time. And we are able to do this because we sit within a Christmas story that speaks a better word about who we are and what the world is. 

In the apocalyptic language of our scripture readings and hymnody, we are reminded that we do not live in the world that God intends for us. We live in the space between the first and second Advents, where promises are true even as they are unseen. A space where death and decay still rule, where our sins against one another and against the world entrusted to us have not yet been visibly redeemed in Christ. We are reminded that even as we know the Spirit of God is among us, “Still we wait for thy appearing /…Chasing all our fears, and cheering /  Every poor benighted heart.” And in the midst of all of that, of all of this, our only choice is to sing, as Wesley did, “Guide [us] into thy perfect peace.”

Ryan Wiggins

Ryan (he/him) is an MDiv student at Wesley Theological Seminary. A lifelong Marylander, he has a BA in history from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a focus on early American Christianity. He is a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church and local pastor in the Mission Central Parish, a United Methodist community north of Baltimore. In his spare time, Ryan can be found cleaning up after children or catching up on the Star Trek franchise.

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