By CJ Davis
“As for you also,
because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your Stronghold,
O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.”
– Zechariah 9:11-12
Encouragement begins in the dark. So does life. And Jesus. And the world. This Sunday, December 3rd, is the first day of the Church Year. The Liturgical Calendar, taking its cues from the Creation Story in Genesis and the Gospels, begins with the season of expectation. In the midst of a chaotic sea, in the heart of darkness, in the dashed expectations of freedom, in the monotony of another Monday, the Story of God begins with Waiting.
It seems so strange to have the New Years of the Church begin with the First of a month-long waiting period. Shouldn’t it start with Easter? With the glorious Resurrection of the One who died ahead of us? Or even Pentecost, when the Spirit of Holiness created again a life of abundance and generosity pouring out and into the cups of everyone with a thirst? No. The first New Day of the Church Calendar is the First Sunday of Advent. And the heartlogic behind this is beautiful, compelling, and real.
To tap into this reality three things need to be held together and their significance felt. These three are: Creation, the Day, and the Gospels.
In the beginning God was brooding. Hovering. Covering like a mother bird her yet-to-be. The story of God begins with God taking the status of things and changing them forever. We learn from the opening lines of the Creation Story that there was a watery chaotic darkness. “The land was wild and waste and darkness was over the surface of the abyss.” These are the conditions of what would become God’s good creation. Wild like a wilderness. Waste like a desert. Dark like a storm. An abyss that has no home for humanity. Until God speaks. By his Spirit we read in the Creation Story how the wild becomes ordered, how the waste becomes filled, how the darkness is contained by light, and how the abyss gives rise to a dry land in which humanity can flourish. We tend to think of God’s act of creation in the terms “Ex Nihilo” or “out of nothing.” The picture of the Genesis narrative is more akin to “Vita ab Chao” or “life from chaos.” Life from death. This is how the story of God starts – in the dark. With the dark. And from the darkness, God brings out light and life and love and a space for us. Creation begins in the dark.
Within the Creation Story, there’s a glitch. Each day begins with evening and ends with morning. “And there was evening and there was morning.” Shouldn’t it read, “and there was morning and there was evening?” This is another picture of how God works. The Days in creation all begin with Evening. This is carried through the storyline of the Bible and into the lives of God’s people. For the Israelites, each new day began when the sun goes down. This is a picture of the Creation Story in nuce. And it was a practice for God’s people. A practice for them to begin their days with Rest. The first thing God’s people were called to do each new day was to surrender their agency and trust that God would carry them through the darkness to his glorious sunrise. This is a design feature woven into the fabric of God’s Creation. His Creation began in the darkness. Then light shone into that darkness, naming it and containing it. Each New Day is a rehearsal of that first act. And each New Day is a dress-rehearsal for God’s First Act of New Creation. The Day begins in the dark.
Following in this same pattern, the Gospels begin in the dark. God’s first act of creation began by his Spirit inhabiting a barren place and bringing out miraculous life. God’s First Act of New Creation begins this same way: with the Birth of Jesus to Mary, the Virgin. It is no wonder that the story of Mary encountering the God of Creation is shot-through with language from God’s First Creation. The Gospels burst onto the scene in the midst of a people who are holding on to hope by a thread. They are in a chaotic darkness of broken dreams and they need God’s Word to speak Life into their hearts. The Gospels don’t begin with the joyful Resurrection and Victory of God, they begin with the heartache of an exiled people sitting in expectation. And while God was in the womb of Mary, present among his people incognito, he once again by his Spirit was preparing to break through the present chaotic darkness with the Light of a New Day. The Gospels begin in the dark.
Holding these three things together, the reality of Advent comes alive. Advent takes our present darkness, our chaotic waters, our uninhabitable abyss and shows us they are actually pregnant with the Hope of New Creation, the Hope of the Appearing of Jesus. As we wait like Creation, as we wait like the Day, as we wait like the Gospels, we are full of the Hope of God’s Appearing. The Appearing of God that has happened in Jesus, is happening in the Church, and will happen at the Dawn of the New Age.
As people “on whom the ends of the ages have come” we, like Creation, like the Day, like the Gospels, begin in the dark. But we are drawn out of that darkness towards New Life and we participate in drawing New Life out of the darkness around us. We are “prisoners of Hope” who have seen the New Creation of God in the face of Jesus, in the wounded hands and feet of His Body the Church, and will finally see Him when he Appears to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.