Winter Dawn on Saltspring Island, BC
I love that in the Jewish and Christian traditions, days actually begin the night before based on the lunar calendar of scripture. As the sun lowers below the horizon, swathing the world in darkness, we move into the new day. In earlier times, the night before a Christian feast day, vigil was kept. Vigil comes from the Latin vigilia which means wakefulness. Keeping vigil is in part what Advent is about, staying awake, keeping watch, waiting. We may go to vigil services for Christmas or Easter. There are times of keeping vigil in our own lives. The five days I sat by my mother’s bed in the hospital as she lay dying was a holy vigil. It was a time of being fully present to her in that liminal space, the between time, waiting for that last moment — the great hinge of our lives that moves us into another way of being beyond what we can know. I am aware right now of a fellow Oblate who lays in her bed dying of cancer right this very moment, with her husband keeping vigil. I surround them with love in my imagination. I keep vigil with them in my prayers.
There is great wisdom in honoring the night before the day, the place of darkness and womb-tending before the full light of morning. We move into the rest of evening to renew ourselves for the work ahead. We embrace the time of unknowing before insight comes. Our Christmas celebrations of the incarnation are preceded by this time of preparation and anticipation of new birth. Honoring the night first acknowledges the seeds planted deep in the soil only just beginning to break open. Beginning with night gives us the space of darkness to know there is much more to the world than what we can see. Sitting under a night sky, we can’t help but be moved to awe and wonder at the vastness of it all as darkness stretches above us.
I am moved by the words of Henri Nouwen this early morning, in an essay titled “Waiting for God,” in the book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas:
To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. . . The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for what we have already seen.
The night offers us such space. Advent is the season of night, when we move into greater and greater darkness, knowing that dawn is near because we have tasted it before. In a world bathed in sorrow and grief, we continue to wait because we have known joy and hope. We continue to wait because the landscape of our unknowing in some way teaches us about the path ahead. We embrace the great Mystery and the vastness of our longings, trusting that they lead us forward into the night.
-Christine Valters Paintner