(Photo credit: Bryan Goff on Unsplash)

Realizing the beauty of darkness

By the Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell

Baptists aren’t known for being liturgical, in that not all of us follow the liturgical calendar. Growing up, I don’t recall ever observing Ash Wednesday or Lent. Our church did observe Maundy Thursday and Good Friday only when we were partnering with our Lutheran neighbors. However, most of the time we skipped on to Easter. I don’t remember learning about Pentecost in my youth. But Advent — yes. Advent had made its way back into the Baptist church in which I grew up as well as many Baptist churches that I know. We may not know the date of Ash Wednesday, but we enjoy lighting those Advent candles leading up to Christmas Eve.

Christmas always inspires wonder and delight, but we often miss the beauty of Advent — the beauty of darkness.

I grew up in Alaska, just north of Anchorage, where winter nights are long. The sun would rise at 11 a.m. and set at 3:30 p.m., meaning we went to school and had morning recess in the dark. It would be light at lunchtime, and the sun would set on our way home. And even at mid-day, the sun’s zenith was just above the mountaintops, meaning the sky never was very bright. Further north, in Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow), the sun set at 1:38 p.m. Alaska Time on Nov. 18, 2017. The sun will rise at 1:26 p.m. Alaska Time on Jan. 22, 2018, and be up for just under 26 minutes on that first day.

Growing up, I loved those long, dark Alaskan nights. By February, I was ready for spring, but in December, those long nights were filled with magic and wonder. On clear nights, the Aurora Borealis would ribbon through the sky; on cloudy nights, the lights from houses reflected off the snow, creating a warm glow. Early evenings were spent sledding and snowshoeing; late evenings were filled with hot cocoa and sitting by the fireplace.

We often contrast darkness with light; John’s Gospel account declares that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). We are watching and waiting for the light to return in the world. We often associate darkness with death, ignorance and evil; light is associated with life, goodness and knowledge.

But there is beauty in darkness.

In darkness, we know what we are missing.

In darkness, we know that there is more we cannot see.

In darkness, we know we are waiting for dawn.

Light is good. We need light to see, to learn, to know what is around us. But we can take light for granted and forget that sometimes we don’t have light. The beauty of darkness reminds us that our vision is limited, our knowledge only in part.

Many Advent carols, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” are written in minor keys. The dissonance with the more cheerful Christmas carols we will later sing keep us in tune with the darkness around us.

Advent reminds us that we are watching and waiting for Christ to come again, for Christ to break into our world and into our lives in a new way. Christmas is wonderful and joyous and reminds us that God’s love became known to us in the Christ child. We know that one day we will know the fullness of God’s love; we celebrate that each year, as we remember how God’s love was born in us. Until the new day, we live in Advent, in the beauty of darkness.

The Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is pastor of Queen Anne Baptist Church, Seattle, Wash., and ministry associate of social media for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.