Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Tiniest Bits of Light
"You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness."
—1 Thessalonians 5:5 (Read 1 Thessalonians 5)
The diminishing of daylight is a sure sign of Advent. The road leading to December 21, the shortest day of the year, is pitch dark when I head to work; the way home is overcast, the afternoon fades when I return from earnest hours at the office and in the classroom.
By then, the oaks have given up their leaves, their detritus. The humans hibernate.
I feel the night breathing down my neck during this season, but the demands of teaching keep me busy, vaguely aware of the holidays as I grade papers under an artificial incandescence.
This year particularly—quarantined, masked, and socially distanced—it is hard not to feel panicked, claustrophobic, waiting for winter to close in.
For my wife and I, a summer of backyard landscaping and barbecues on the patio offered a reprieve; now we take a deep breath and ready ourselves to be entombed again. We are as bereft as the maples.
Living in Michigan, we’ve learned to manage the cold. We cocoon our bodies in long underwear and down jackets, fit the bed with heated sheets, split wood for the fireplace, and lounge in the warm plasma of the television. Even the blue flame of the gas range reassures us.
But always outside the encroachment of darkness.
And the darkness feels darker as I age.
One of my best friends from college, giving way to depression, found some rope, went into a barn, and hanged herself. That was ten years ago. The void not only persists, it festers in me like all the other absences I’ve accumulated: the death of my father, the loss of students. Colleagues, cousins, aunts, and uncles have departed as well, their places in my person empty, unfilled.
I could catalogue those wounds, and sometimes I do, but what disturbs me now that I am well into my fifties is to see the idealism that lit up my college days extinguish. The country I hoped in some small way to change feels closer to collapse than it has ever been. Tribalism, materialism, climate change, racial unrest. And still we are not on our knees.
Exhausted, I find myself this Advent inexplicably in league with darkness. I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. Like St. Paul, I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. The situation is even more grave than it appears because I am rooted with others in generational sin, institutional sin.
Who can save me from this body of death?
Recently, I have been reading a book called The Hidden Life of Trees by the naturalist and forester Peter Wohlleben. He offers some remarkable observations about plant anatomy, but one observation floored me:
It...takes only the tiniest amount of light for the buds to register day length, as we already know from the seeds of some agricultural weeds. Out in the fields, all it takes is the weak light of the moon at night to trigger germination.
When I was a boy, I remember how, toward the end of December, my grandfather, a farmer, would perk up at winter solstice because he knew every day thereafter the light would grow longer. The land was in its nadir, but he was buoyant, irrepressible, filled with the hope of green fields.
My grandfather lacked Wohlleben’s scientific (poetic) phrasing, but he understood in his bones that crops are photoreceptive, designed to respond to radiance, its slightest hints.
In the dead of winter, these hints—particles and waves—summon us too. Awake, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.
Against this darkness, impossible as it seems, the position of faith is to be activated by light, to be children of light. The gospel promises that we are made for joy. No matter how bleak the shadow, the Lord beckons us, as he alerted shepherds and wise men to seek the Savior.
For in him was life, and the life was the light of creation.
This Advent, I am reminding myself that I have been equipped with a God-given photosensitivity. As my world goes dormant, as the hemisphere is enveloped in what seems like eternal darkness, I wait for the Christ-child, attentive to his cries, the tiniest bits of light.
—L.S. Klatt is a poet and also a professor at Calvin University. From 1990-97, Lew worked for the CCO in ministry with law, medical, and dental students at the University of Pittsburgh.