Advent 1: When Night Is Your Middle Name

By Jan Richardson

Image: When Night Is Your Middle Name © Jan Richardson

Lection from the Psalter, Advent 1: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19

I am a night owl. I love the dark hours. Periodically I work on going to bed earlier, but it feels like entering alien territory, trying to make sense of a landscape and a language that I have a hard time fathoming. A friend, knowing my dark ways, once asked me, so what do you do at night? Oh, what there is to do at night! I read, I told him; or perhaps write, or pray, or soak up the quiet, or unwind in front of the TV. It is a time to gather up the threads of the day, a period in which interruptions are rare and intrusions are few, a space in which my soul can catch up with me. If I’ve spent the day around people, my inner introvert is in particular need of having quiet time before sleep. If I haven’t gotten enough solitary space by the end of the day, insomnia often ensues.

There is darkness even in my name. My middle name, Leila, means night in Hebrew. My parents did not know this at the time—the name belongs to a great-grandmother—but it proved a felicitous choice.

I’m inclined to think there’s a link between my fondness for night and my level of comfort with mystery. Perhaps because my path in life has taken some unusual turns, I’ve become fairly adept at living with a sense of unknowing. I have had plenty of occasion to develop skills that help keep me grounded as the conundrums of my life unfold. Being connected with a Benedictine community has been a great help in this regard. When you hang out with folks who are part of a tradition that’s been around for more than a millennium and a half, you learn a few things about taking the long view and about practicing in the midst of mysteries that can take years and decades and centuries to reveal themselves.

As we lean into Advent, however, I find myself wondering, what illumination might God be offering to me in this season? Are there any mysteries I’ve become too willing to live with, any space in my soul that needs to be brought out of the shadows?

It’s one thing, after all, to live with the mysteries that come with our human lives, to enter into the rhythms of the sometimes strange ways that God works with us. The older I get, the more I think of God as the Ancient of Days, the Holy One of the Long Haul, who seems so deeply fond of working things out over vast expanses of time. This is the aspect of God that calls us to trust, that challenges us to step out without being able to see what’s ahead.

It’s another thing, however, to become too enthralled by the shadows. Mystery has its own enchantments; without spiritual practices and habits of discernment to ground us, those enchantments can lull us into becoming overly comfortable with the shadows and the places of unknowing that attend our journeys. If I don’t know something, after all; if I’m endlessly willing to live in a ceaseless process of discernment that never leads to action, if I don’t see a place of brokenness in my own soul or in the soul of the world, then I don’t have to do anything about it.

That’s called denial.

So as we tilt into these Advent days—and nights—I find myself praying along with the author of the psalm for this Sunday. In Psalm 80 we find a communal lament during a time of devastation. As in the reading from Isaiah, the psalmist’s community struggles with its sense of God’s absence and anger, yet its members still cry out to God to turn toward them and come into their midst. Repeatedly in Psalm 80 the psalmist offers a version of the refrain, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

The psalmist and his community are not living in denial of their brokenness. They may yet have some distance to go in discerning and reckoning with their responsibility for their own pain, but they perceive clearly their desperate need for the God who can heal them. Once, twice, and yet again the psalmist cries out for God to illumine them, to save and restore them, to clarify God’s presence among and within them.

Let your face shine.

How might it be to carry this prayer into this season? Is there some corner of my soul that has lived too long in shadow? Of the mysteries I have been content to live with, is there one that God might be ready to solve? Am I ready to receive the clarity that might come? How will I meet the God who longs to shine God’s face not only on me but through me as well? How will you?

May we have the courage to turn our faces to the God who meets us in darkness and in daylight. Blessings.

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One Response to “Advent 1: When Night Is Your Middle Name”

  1. phyllis Says:

    I identify with your occasional insomnia. Thank you for identifying one reason: needing solitary space from a busy people-fillled day. I won’t let it trouble me anymore!

    I love the shininess and darkness and mystery about this collage. It prompts me to wonder about the paths and what in my life needs to have light shone on it. It’s unsettling to think of going there; denial is easy to live with sometimes. So, I pray I can let God’s face shine on me which in turn will shine through me. I’ll give it a try in my ponderings this week.

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