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Advent Hope and the Power of Opposites

Because I love the Christian season of Advent that leads up to Christmas, I will again be writing each week of Advent a piece around the week’s theme and inviting you into a spiritual practice with me.

Early morning darkness comforts and relaxes me. In the pre-dawn hours, especially the long ones we experience in early winter in the Northern Hemisphere, I get up, make my morning lemon tea and settle back into another form of rest — my meditation practice. Though different than sleep, my meditation practice feels like a sweet little nap taken just after deeper slumber in the not-quite-yet time before sunrise. If I manage to resist the beckoning light of my phone, therein contained the frenzied lure of my task list and relentless heart-breaking news headlines, my meditation practice becomes a slow, delicious beginning to the day.

On Sunday the Christian season of Advent began. This is a season of waiting, preparing for something still-unknown to get born. I love that this year the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — another religious season recalling the miraculous gift of light overcoming darkness — starts at nearly the same time.

As someone who adores summer and who slept with a light on until I was 11 years old, embracing the preparing, the waiting in darkness which this season demands, was not a natural practice. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, “If there is any truth to the teaching that spiritual reality is divided into halves, it is the truth that those parts exist in balance, not opposition. What can light possibly mean without dark? Who knows spirit without also knowing flesh? Is anyone altogether good or altogether evil?”

Advent counterculturally reminds me that darkness is not evil, bad, or to be avoided. In Advent I come to know the fruitfulness of darkness, the growth that always happens there. This first week of the Advent calendar themes around Hope. Strange maybe to contemplate hope while immersed in so much darkness. (We ritually light only one Advent candle this week.) But, this is the practice of life — learning to experience and feel disparate things like hope and despair in remarkable tension.

A few days ago, I read a particularly gut-wrenching story about how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials lured an undocumented immigrant keeping sanctuary in a church in Durham, North Carolina, under the pretense of a routine check and instead arrested and deported him, even while surrounded by a number of witnesses from the church who had housed him for almost a year. I was filled with dread and hopelessness, wondering what I could do in the face of this government-sponsored terrorism from my privileged seat as a U.S.-born person of white, European descent. 

But, recognizing hope amidst a backdrop of lies, betrayal and failure is exactly the point of our Advent practice. Like Brown Taylor wrote, hope cannot exist without despair. Advent is a time to sharpen our ability to recognize it even in the bleakest of times. My yogic meditation training in the Kashmir tradition has taught me that opposites always arise together. Though we may focus on one feeling or belief at a time, if we search our thoughts, feelings and beliefs just a little deeper, both always arise together. Those opposite halves are indeed not in opposition, but in balance.

I invite you to recognize (maybe even journal about it) where you choose to experience hope amidst a moment of despair and hopelessness. In that article I referenced above, I recognize hope in the witnesses who accompanied that immigrant, who surrounded him with song and prayer even as he was ripped from his family and home in the U.S. I am grateful for journalists and church members who are telling the stories of these harsh government policies so that more people are touched by pain of our dysfunctional immigration system and are spurred to action to embrace and love the poor, the migrant, the stranger.

If embraced, this season can be a time to gestate hope in the safe womb of darkness, at the end giving birth to something full of astounding promise.

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