Advent is the season of darkness. Throughout the four weeks of Advent, we speak of darkness gradually giving way to light; we pray that Jesus the Light of the World may come to us once more; we sing of the Light of Christ shining into the darkness of our hearts; we light candles amongst the holly and ivy of the wreath as a visible sign that we anticipate the coming of Light into our world.
And, of course, as we make our journey through the Advent season, we mourn the loss of natural light in the world outside. We rise in the dark, we come home in the dark, we climb into bed in the dark. Our minds and bodies sometimes forget whether it is seven o'clock in the morning or in the evening, so similar is the level of darkness outside the window. We see less by natural light - the world seems dulled, almost like a theatre backcloth than the real thing we knew in spring and summer.
Perhaps there is also in Advent a feeling of emptiness - a feeling that, below the surface of the pre-Christmas busy-ness, nothing is growing. A feeling, perhaps, that our reserves of energy are low, that our defences are shaky. Certainly at this time of year we are susceptible to attacks on our immune system. Illness and darkness make us aware of our vulnerability, our human frailty.
But perhaps there is some meaning, some wisdom in this darkness and emptiness. Perhaps this is where we are meant to be at this stage of the Advent season? For we are creatures of flesh and blood, creatures of this earth - maybe the key lies in knowing how to adapt to this time of year, how to align ourselves with the seasonal changes we experience, and how we can learn and grow from them? Perhaps the darkness of this time of year is given that we may learn to still ourselves, to take shelter, to learn patience and, as we wait for the light to return, to reflect.
This is the point in the year when the light begins to grow around us. The Winter Solstice, which occurred a few days ago, marks the point in the natural cycle of the year when the days begin to grow longer and darkness gives way to natural light. For us who anticipate the festival of the birth of Christ, the re-birth of sunlight points us to the greater miracle of the birth of the Son who is the Light of the whole world.
But at this stage of the Advent season we are not quite there yet - there is another part of the journey to travel. In today's gospel reading we watch Mary, the God-bearer, hastening on her journey to her cousin Elizabeth's house. She makes this long trip on foot, over rocks and stones across the countryside, in the heat of the sun. Mary is not anxious or over-protective as she brings forth the Holy Child, she is embracing life. She does not seem to be worrying whether the way is too hard. Rather, she seems to draw strength from the soft light which glows and grows within her, enriching her soul. Everything else is in second place.
Perhaps we can allow our emptiness and darkness to enrich us and to speak to others. Perhaps, like Mary, we can stop worrying for five minutes about trying to make everything perfect, and give ourselves a chance to receive the Light. For the true Light, that gives light to all people, is coming into the world. Let us offer our hearts as a hearth and home for that light to burn within us.