Behold, the Lamb of God,
which taketh away the sin of the world
The praises of Advent in the
quiet darkness of nature’s year really belong to the blessings of Christmas.
The praises are part and parcel of the preparations. They are God’s
readying Word for us in preparation for his being with us and so they
must be about his Word in us. The preparations of Advent are not only God’s
doings for us, but also his work in us. Advent signals
something of the great wonder of the Christian faith – God with us,
Emmanuel, comes so that his life may live and take shape in us. The
praises of Advent are God’s songs in the hearts of his people.
But what are those praises?
Only consider and, perhaps, you will come to see something of the strange
wonder and the holy joy of Christmas. For in the watching and the
waiting of Advent, we learn to give praise for the darkness and the quiet,
for this is the purposeful expectancy that is Advent.
This is the week of the darkest
time of nature’s year but we look for the coming of the light in a spirit
quite removed from the forms of paganism both new and old. Our waiting
is a waiting expectantly and not in the fear and the anxiety that, perhaps,
the sun will not rise and that, perhaps, the days will not increase and that
we must sacrifice ourselves to the order of nature to insure the wheel of
life rolls on.
No. The greater darknesses
of the Advent season have far more to do with our spiritual lives than
merely the physical phenomenon of the winter solstice. They are about
the forms of spiritual wickedness and folly in each of our lives
individually and collectively: “the far-spent night”, we might say,
of our rebellion and revolt; “the far-spent night” of our turning
away from the light of God’s Word in law and prophecy, in nature and in
human experience; “the far-spent night” of the darkness within
ourselves. To be awakened to that understanding is part and parcel of
the meaning and purpose of the Advent season. It means, paradoxically it
must seem, to praise the darkness.
We praise the darkness for the
Light it brings. I mean by this something more than our praise of the
darkness into which the light comes and overrules the darkness. I mean
that we praise the darkness for the light which the darkness itself brings.
To put it more strongly, the darkness itself is light. We are beyond
the simple pagan opposition of dark and light as good and evil. The
darkness, too, is part of the goodness of the created order and in the order
of redemption there is the realization of the power of God who makes
something good even out of our evil. To know that is to praise the
darkness for the light it brings. It was, says Dante, in “the dark
wood”, selva oscura, the dark wood of the winter of our souls,
our souls of love’s manifold disarray, “that I learned a great good.”
How can this be? Because
something is known in the darkness, something the darkness, as it were,
communicates. But it is only known as known when it comes into the
light. The darkness, if I may say in this strange way of speaking, is
a lesser light which comes to be seen and known as a light in the greater
Light of Christ’s own coming. The darkness belongs to the Light
In the same manner, we praise the
quiet for the Word it brings. Here, too, I mean something more than
our praise of the quiet into which the Word comes and shatters the silence.
I mean that we praise the quiet for the Word which the silence itself
speaks. To put it even more strongly, the quiet itself is a word.
There is something known in the quiet, something the quiet, as it were,
makes known. But, it is only known as known when it is brought into
the Word. The quiet is a lesser word which comes to be heard and known
as a word in the greater Word of Christ’s own coming.
The darkness and the quiet are
words and light in the Word and Light of Jesus Christ. We praise the
darkness and the quiet of Advent for the Word and Light of Christmas.
What does it mean? It means
that repentance is the occasion of rejoicing. The repentance of the
Advent season is the cause of our greatest joy. “Repent ye, for the
kingdom of heaven is at hand”. This is the note of advent.
The epistle for today sounds the note of praise in the preparations of
Advent and opens out the vistas of prayer and thanksgiving and peace.
It is sung in the awareness of our darkness, not the darkness of nature, but
the darkness named here as our “anxieties”, literally, our being
“full of cares”, overwhelmed, as it were, with our own preoccupations
and busynesses, something, I think, that we know only too well in the hustle
and the bustle, the noise and the rustle of the pre-Christmas season. High
anxiety indeed! And yet, as the epistle exultantly proclaims and
exhorts, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, Rejoice”. It
is exactly the note sung in the repeated refrain of the great advent carol,
The purpose of John the Baptist
is to prepare the Lord’s way by preaching a baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sins. What he preaches he does not and cannot
accomplish himself. He is not the forgiveness of sins and yet he is so
necessary to its meaning that he belongs inescapably to its fulfillment. “I
am not the Christ”, he says. “I am the voice of one crying in
the wilderness”. In the voice of the one crying in the quiet
darkness of our wilderness world, we hear the Word of God. In the one who is
not the Christ, we see the Christ coming to us. In the judgment that
is repentance, we know the Christ who is forgiveness. “The Lord is at
hand. In nothing be anxious”. The darkness and the quiet are words
and light which reveal him to us. “Behold”, John the Baptist
cries, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”.
Our repentance is our occasion of
rejoicing. It brings us to the greater joy of Christmas because it
signals to us the purpose of his coming and the meaning of the divine
humility in the Word made flesh. We are not being shown “fear in a
handful of dust” (T.S. Eliot) so much as joy at the means of our
redemption, the darkness itself bearing light in the greater Light of
Christ; the quiet itself sounding words in the greater Word of Christ; the
judgment that is repentance awakening songs of rejoicing. And so shall
we rejoice at the great feast of Christmas when the Lord at hand is God with
us. Then we shall know our darkness in his heavenly Light and our
quiet in his almighty Word. Then we shall know the majesty of God in
the tender humanity of the Son of God, the Word made flesh and the Light of
Behold the Lamb of God…