This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas

By Jan Richardson

MagnificatImage: Magnificat © Jan Richardson

My husband died on the second day of Advent 2013, several weeks after experiencing massive complications during what we had anticipated would be routine surgery. In that season, my primary Advent practices involved such things as remembering to breathe, eat, and sleep as I began to navigate the awful and bewildering terrain of grief.

Two years later, I still sometimes have to remember to engage in those practices. But this year, as I navigated the second anniversary of Gary’s death and entered into Advent once again, I became aware of a keen desire to move through this season in a different way. Just what way, I wasn’t sure.

I searched for resources for Advent and mourning. In my searching, I was struck by how so many of those resources take a strategic approach, offering guidelines for how to manage grief during the holidays. It’s good to have some strategies for coping with the innumerable triggers that can so easily exacerbate sorrow during this season. At the same time, I knew that my grief was asking me to do something more than manage it.

If I have learned anything about grief in the past two years, it is that grief is a wild creature. Grief will resist every attempt to tame it, to control it, or to keep it tidy and well-behaved. Rather than managing it, grief asks instead that we tend it, listen to it, question it. One of the surest ways to calm it is to give it some space in which to speak—or to holler, or weep.

I have learned also that grief loves stories. Resistant as grief is to pat answers, logic, and linear thinking, it finds a natural home within the landscape of a story, where meaning appears not so much in facts or formulas as in metaphors, symbols, and the unpredictable pathways of narrative.

As I thought about what I need in this season, and how I want not just to abide this Advent but to move through it with intention and openness, I found myself naturally drawn to some of the greatest gifts this season gives us: its stories. In the sacred texts that accompany us in Advent and Christmas, we find an extraordinarily rich landscape that, for all its darkness, is luminous with story. This luminous landscape holds particular treasures for those of us traveling through this season in the company of grief.

I want to offer a sketch of the landscape I am discovering as I revisit these stories. I share this not as a comprehensive, detailed map but rather as a way of beginning to trace the outline of the terrain and some of its treasures, looking for what illumination they might provide for this shadowed Advent path.

How do these resonate for you? What light might these treasures offer for your own journey through this season?

• The boundaries of heaven and earth are not as fixed as we think. In the stories of this season, we see a wondrous interplay between the realms. Angels come with strange invitations (Luke 1:5-20, 26-38) and glorious announcements (Luke 2:8-14). Wise men watch the skies and follow a star (Matthew 2:1-12). Ordinary people open themselves to the purposes of God, becoming the means by which God works on this earth. God becomes incarnate in Christ, choosing to enter fully into our human life for the purpose of showing us how heaven is already in our midst. What we tend to experience as separate realms are, in fact, part of one realm in which God is everywhere at work.

In a time when the loss of a beloved can make the separation between heaven and earth seem especially sharp, how might these stories help us perceive and enter into the fluid relationship between earth and heaven?

• In the most difficult places on our path, spaces of sanctuary are waiting for us. Pregnant, unmarried, and alone, Mary is in a perilous state after the archangel Gabriel departs. Rather than attempting to tough it out on her own, Mary goes in search of someone who will help. She finds that help in the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who welcomes Mary and offers her safety, blessing, and sanctuary (Luke 1:39-45).

When we feel most alone, who could help? Where might we find a space of sanctuary—or offer it to someone on their own difficult path?

• When the world as we know it has ended, sing. Or paint. Or dance, or write, or build something. After Elizabeth welcomes and blesses her, Mary responds with a song that the Christian tradition has come to know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). With this song, Mary articulates an astonishing vision of a God who redeems and restores the world, not in a far-off future but already. That’s how powerful her vision is.

Grief tends to gut the imagination. This can make it difficult to discern what vision God has for us, or to dream what our life might look like more than ten minutes at a time. Intentional creativity, whatever its form, has the power to restore and renew our imagination. It helps us perceive the possibilities that are at hand, and, like Mary, to envision and enter into the wholeness that God has somehow already brought about.

When our world shatters, what creative practice(s) will enable us to pay attention to the fragments and perceive how God might want to put them together in a new pattern?

• To find the next step, sometimes we need to fall asleep. The journey of grief invites an enormous amount of intention. It asks that we resist the impulse to go numb or to always give in to the exhaustion that so often accompanies mourning. Sometimes, however, the best thing we can do is fall asleep. I mean this both literally and figuratively. In the story of Joseph, who had to deal with his own world coming to an end, we find marvelous images of how God’s desires became known to Joseph through his dreaming (Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13, 19-20, 22). When God wants to convey something to us, God frequently chooses something other than the straightforward way. Dream, story, metaphor, intuition, synchronicity, poetry, art: God seems to love showing up in our peripheral vision rather than head-on, finding the language or medium by which we will most clearly sense what God is asking of us.

On the path of grief, which often resists our attempts at rational thought and conscious will, what ways of knowing will we open ourselves to? In this season, where will we look and listen in order to discern God’s desires for us?

• Remembering is a practice and an art. Advent has a way of triggering memories that, when we are in grief, can be particularly painful. There is little to shield us against the sheer quantity of seasonal sights and sounds that remind us of holidays past, when our loved one was with us. Just recently I found myself in the midst of an unmerry meltdown at the end of a day that included a trip to a local bookstore for a few presents. Gary and I had had our first date in that bookstore, and, over the years, had spent many happy hours in its café, our heads bent together over books, cups of tea and coffee in hand. Visiting the bookstore again, now decked out in its holiday finery and with Christmas music streaming through its speakers, provided one of the final triggers that prompted a spectacular Advent overload.

In the face of such memory triggers, intentional remembering can, paradoxically, become one of our most powerful practices. Mary knew about the art of remembering. The Gospel of Luke tells us that after everything—after her pregnancy, after Jesus’ birth, after the proclamation of the angels and the visit of the shepherds—Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19). She understood that the heart is a treasure house of memory. The heart is a space where our memories can be gathered together and made whole in the present.

In this season, how will I choose to practice the art of intentional remembering? Here and now, as I consciously gather and treasure the memories of my beloved, what new gift and blessing might they hold for me?

• Hope opens us to the future but releases us into the present. Advent draws our eyes toward the horizon as we watch and wait for the Christ who comes to us. In this season, we sing with Zechariah, By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us (Luke 1:78). When we are in grief, looking toward the horizon with hope and anticipation is no small feat. Instead of luring us away from the present, however, Advent invites us more deeply into it, where the kingdom of God is at work even now. This is the nature of the hope that Advent cultivates in us. Rich with memory and infused with expectation, hope calls and enables us to work here and now, in company with the Christ who is already about the work of heaven in our midst. It is perhaps no mere mistake that in other ancient versions of Luke 1, Zechariah speaks not in the future tense but in the present perfect: the dawn from on high has broken upon us, he sings.

What am I hoping for? How does this hope inspire me to act in this moment?

• God has a fondness for what is fragile. This means us. Advent tells us that God came to us—and comes to us still—with complete vulnerability. Christ is to be found among what is fragile—including us, ourselves, when pain and loss have left us feeling less than whole. In coming to us as a child, Christ chooses to take on our human vulnerability. We see this not only in his birth but also, with awful clarity, at the other end of his life, when on the cross he shows us the lengths he is willing to go to in order to enter into our experience.

In my brokenness, can I see my vulnerability as a place where God wants to know me?

• Darkness is where incarnation begins. The gorgeous texts of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany shimmer with the light that God brings into our midst, as in the prologue to John’s Gospel: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5). Yet if we lean too quickly toward the light, we miss seeing one of the greatest gifts this season has to offer us: that the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us. In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in it. I will give you the treasures of darkness, God says in Isaiah 45:3, and riches hidden in secret places. For the Christ who was born two millennia ago, for the Christ who seeks to be born in us this day, the darkness is where incarnation begins.

Can we imagine the darkness as a place where God meets us—and not only meets us, but asks to take form in this world through us?

Comfort, O comfort my people, we hear God cry out in an Advent text from Isaiah (40:1). If, in this life, I cannot do away with grief, then I pray that I will at least enter into it with a heart open to this comfort, this solace that is one of the greatest treasures God offers us in the landscape of this season. This comfort is no mere pablum, no saccharine wish. And though it is deeply personal, it is not merely that; solace does not leave us to our own solitude. True comfort opens our broken heart toward the broken heart of the world and, in that opening, illuminates a doorway, a threshold, a connection. It reveals to us a place where, in the company of heaven and earth, we can begin anew, bearing forth the solace we have found.

An update, posted on Christmas Day: Friends, I have been so moved by the responses I’ve received to “The Luminous Darkness.” I want to let you know that it’s now available as a PDF for ease of downloading and printing for yourself or sharing with others. Given that Christmas is a season (leading up to Epiphany on January 6) and not just a single day, we still have a rich opportunity to linger with the stories of this season and the treasures they hold. To download or print the PDF, click the image or link below:

Magnificat
This Luminous Darkness:
Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas


New from Jan Richardson

CIRCLE OF GRACE: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons

Circle of GraceWithin the struggle, joy, pain, and delight that attend our life, there is an invisible circle of grace that enfolds and encompasses us in every moment. Blessings help us to perceive this circle of grace, to find our place of belonging within it, and to receive the strength the circle holds for us. from the Introduction

Beginning in Advent and moving through the sacred seasons of the Christian year, Circle of Grace offers Jan’s distinctive and poetic blessings that illuminate the treasures each season offers to us. A beautiful gift this Advent and Christmas. Available in print and ebook.

ORDER THE BOOK

 

BLESSING FOR THE LONGEST NIGHT: A few years ago, I created a blessing for the Winter Solstice that has found its way into many Longest Night/Blue Christmas services. To visit this blessing, click this image or the title below:

Longest Night
Winter Solstice: Blessing for the Longest Night

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Magnificat,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com.

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

29 Responses to “This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas”

  1. Ruth Says:

    What a blessing you are! I received my copy of Night Visions just the other day and read the first part of Advent through, to catch up. That has become my night reading. I am currently also enjoying The Advent Door book in the am, along with Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word.
    This speaks so powerfully into those travelling with grief at this sometimes most difficult of seasons -thank you for your honesty and openness, allowing God to bless others through your own tears.

  2. Judith King Says:

    Dear Jan, I just want to thank you for your profoundly beautiful, rich and indeed luminous reflection on offering our Grief the landscape of story during Advent and Christmas. I have always enjoyed the depth and beauty both in word and image that your ponderings bring but today’s is especially remarkable. To weave in those ancient and multi-layered narratives in such a fresh and delightful way really lifts my spirit and soul. I do hope to order your book in the new year look forward to that and I look forward towards the horizon when you might offer a painted book on grief??? My gratitude, my thoughts and all manner of blessings upon you as you continue to allow your grief for your beloved Gary to evolve and change. Judith King, Dublin, Ireland.

  3. Jan Hoffman Says:

    Thank you, Jan. I am in grief this Advent, having retired in June and left “my” congregation and role. I am finding your help invaluable, and while my husband did not die, he retired with me from the same congregation, and we are finding the grief overwhelming sometimes. I am surprised at how overbearing the grief is. But I’m given the great gift of time to sit with glorious music, candlelight, fresh cookies, the snuggling Golden retriever on my lap. May you find time to sit, may you continue to dare to venture into the uncomfortable. I am grateful for the gentle guiding God that you and I each trust. Peace to you, even as you offer peace to all of us.

  4. Cindy Van Lunen Says:

    Please know that when I read, “comfort my people” from Isaiah, in your post, all I could think of were all of the times your words have comforted me during these last few years. If we are meant to go out from our suffering and offer the hope of Christ, you surely have done that for me and I am so very grateful. Picking up Sacred Journeys lo those many years ago when I was in seminary is one of the best choices I ever made. May God surround you with whatever you may need in your journey of grief. You are prayed for and loved here by the beach!
    Merry Christmas Jan … Love you!

  5. Terri Pilarski Says:

    Thank you, Jan. This is such a loving map for navigating grief.

  6. Deb Corrigan Says:

    Deep, powerful and transforming. Thank you

  7. Grace Hillers Says:

    Dear Jan, Thank you so much for your words! I lost my husband in March, 2014, last year my pastor friend Jan Hoffman, led me to you, I followed your advent meditations then and purchased your book Circle of Grace this season. Last year I came to PA. and visited a daughter from Nov. till Jan. Then I returned home and began to think about emptying my house full of 34 years of treasures. I sold my house, the closing was early Nov., but I moved to PA. in August, to an apartment . My real 1st Christmas living alone, with a very few of our Christmas treasures. It is a difficult season for me. I appreciate you and all your support this season!!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Grace, thank you so much for the gift of your words. I am so sorry about your husband, and I am grateful to the wondrous Jan Hoffman for connecting us. You have crossed some very courageous territory, with emptying and selling your home and beginning to make a new home in Pennsylvania. Please know I am sending prayers and many blessings as you continue to journey through this difficult season. I pray the veil will be thin and that you will know yourself encompassed in love. Thank you again, Grace (beautiful name!).

  8. Lynda Hyland Burris Says:

    Jan, I met you four (?) years ago when you were leader at “Companions on the Inner Way” at Lake Tahoe. I have followed your work and journey ever since. Four months ago, my husband died, unexpectedly, following surgery. So, this Advent, has been a roller coaster ride with grief and joy. I treasure your words, your wisdom, your art, and find solace in meeting grief head on through writing poetry and memoir. Thank you for sharing this time with us.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Lynda, thank you so much–it’s wonderful to hear from you, but I am so sorry to hear about the unexpected death of your husband. Know I’m sending many blessings as you navigate this journey through Advent, Christmas, and beyond. I pray the veil will be thin, and that you will know the presence of Love as a fierce companion.

      I hold such good memories of the “Companions on the Inner Way” retreat and the remarkable community that I got to spend the week with there. Thank you for being part of that! And thank you again for being in touch; your words are a gift.

      Deep peace to you.

  9. marla Says:

    Thank you for your beautiful words on Advent. I lost my husband two years ago as well after 27 years of marriage and three sons. He was only 57. Your words ring so true with me. I preached at our Women’s Advent Service this year and my sermon title was “Perfect Imperfection.” For me, this is life right now — light and hope in the day to day, living in the moment. Blessings on your continued journey.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Marla, thank you! I am so sorry that you know this kind of loss. “Perfect Imperfection” sounds very apt! I am glad to know you are noticing the presence of light and hope as you live in the day to day; that is a tremendous gift.

      Sending much gratitude and many blessings to you. Thank you again.

  10. Emily Wallace Says:

    I have followed you, these two years, in your vulnerable, painful path of grief.
    Thank you sharing words that help others of us to find our own trails of loss blessed with your words and images.

  11. Mara Says:

    Thank you.

  12. Jan Richardson Says:

    Friends, a quick note to say that I just found your comments-! Typically my blog host automatically sends an email notification when a new comment arrives, but for some reason that feature has apparently stopped working recently. It was wonderful to find your words just now. I am so sorry for the glitch and for the resulting delay in your comments appearing here.

    I’ll respond soon, but wanted to let you know what happened, and to say thank you so much for the gift of your beautiful words! Many, many blessings to you.

  13. Thomas W. Blair Says:

    this is really important- for so many!

    thanks!

  14. Erica Says:

    This is the darkest time of nights and sleep has yet to enwrap me – I find myself drawn to your beautiful reflections again as I wait. Sleeplessness has a purpose this night. I, too, have followed your story and in so doing have uncovered many priceless treasures. Am reminded of ‘treasures of darkness’ invisibly woven into the fabric of life – Isaiah’s words have been crucial in my journey.
    Thank you, Jan, for sharing – blessings gratefully received – returned to you with love.

  15. Suzanne Says:

    Fifteen years past the unexpected loss of my husband of 26 years. Tomorrow is our 41st wedding anniversary. Thank you for sharing your heart and your loss. On a day when my soul feels scraped and raw, your words help to bring healing.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Suzanne, thank you so much for the gift of your words. I am so sorry about your husband. Know that I am thinking of you and sending many blessings on this day that is your 41st wedding anniversary. Praying deep peace for you.

  16. katie Says:

    Jan
    I have been privileged to participate in your advent and lenten retreats for the past few years; It was especially poignant the year Gary died as my grandson had died in 2012 and grief was so much a forefront in my life and I so resonated with your grief and overwhelmded ness. It was a healing balm to me as my faith was ripped apart at that time. Now this year, my husband is facing a “routine” biopsy procedure that is super complicated due to my husband chronic lymphatic leukemia and a very low platelet count. So we have been forewarned that this could be life threatening, just to find out what his issue is. I think of you. I wish I had your strength and resolve to believe in spite of. Thank you for your input into my life. I think of you and Gary all the time and wish you grace and mercy. Hugs!

  17. John Says:

    Dear Jan, A friend sent the link to your newsletter to me and I am so very grateful. My beloved wife, the love of my life died this past September so everything for me is a first and the pain is so sharp that it feels as if I will die – but I don’t. This year has tested me in the furnace, I feel worn out and there is not a moment that goes by where I don’t ache for Mary. My heart is broken, I am flooded with a sense of loss and the memories of all our times together these past 40+ years seem to wash over me in waves. Mary has been my anchor in life, my passage to the divine. I can’t describe my love for her because to do that would somehow cheat its truth.

    Perhaps the problem is that death evokes images of loss, the end of someone or something. In fact if I believe in the Gospel and in the wisdom of so many Elders before me then there is no death – there is only life. To speak of death is to imply that I have no faith or hope in the word. Au-contraire; I have faith and to use these words when talking about Mary is an injustice. There is loss and some of this loss is death, but only of the forms that are created of this world.

    Mary’s vitality, her spirit, her joy, and character will live on and in fact with this leaving she is born anew – beautiful as I have seen her transfigured.

    For me Advent has been a time of deep reflection unlike any that I have done in years past; it’s about returning to beginnings because we have actually never left our beginning. Thank you again for your deep reflections, I look forward to following your writing. Blessings – John

  18. Susan Fontaine Godwin Says:

    Dear one,
    Your insightful and encouraging Advent blessings, words and expressions accompany me as I travel a new road on my journey this Advent season. I lost my Gary on Dec. 5 from numerous health complications. I was blessed to journey with you on the past two Lenten retreats and was greatly comforted by our retreat company this past year, as Gary’s health continued to decline. I can not thank you enough for your faithfulness in articulating and sharing your experiences in seasons of darkness and shadows. Your words have lifted and carried me at times, along with the company of my loving faith community. In Christ’s love, Susan Fontaine Godwin

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Susan, please accept my very belated thanks for your words! They came as a gift, and I’m sorry I didn’t manage to respond at the time. I was so sorry to hear of the death of your Gary, just over two years ago now. I pray these past years have held many graces for you. Sending particular blessings for you in these Advent days and hoping that in the shadows of this season, there will be solace and peace.

      It was such a gift to travel with you through those retreats; thank you for your company in those seasons!

      Again, many blessings to you, and much gratitude.

  19. Lee Ann Long Says:

    Thank you so much, my husband died July 29, 2015. This has been my first advent in 33 years with him by my side. I appreciated your insights into grief during this time! I have been brought closer to God during this time of mourning and loss. I have chosen to write as a way to give my grief an opportunity to speak! Thank you for sharing your grief story with us!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Lee Ann, thank you so much, and please accept my apologies for not managing to respond at the time. I am so sorry for the grief that entered your life with your husband’s death. I’m so glad you’ve been writing as a way to let your grief speak!

      I wish you blessings as you continue to find your way, and I pray that many graces will attend your path. Deep peace to you.

  20. Sister M. Elizabeth Mackowiak Says:

    In the 3 years I have been coordinating Grief Support groups this is one of the best articles I have seen for walking through the Advent season while on the journey of grief. I am walking with a group of people who have recently lost loved ones. This will be so helpful for all of us. I recently lost my mother and a sister in law 3 mo. after Mom. Thank you so much for sharing it with so many. May the spirit of the living God continue to breathe in you as you find ways to help so many. I praise God that I found you, Jan. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Sister Elizabeth, thank you! Your words came as a gift, and please accept my apologies for not managing to respond sooner. I am so sorry for the deep losses that happened in your life last year. I wish you many blessings and pray much solace for you as you continue to grieve and remember your mother and sister-in-law.

      Thank you for your beautiful words and especially for your ministry with those who are grieving. I wish you, and them, deep peace in Advent and always. Thank you again!

  21. The Rev. Dr. Penelope Warren Says:

    My husband died suddenly, nearly 13 years ago, and I can tell you that while the natural grieving process can move one through to a new and full (though different) life, even as far on as this there may be triggers. This year, nothing on the subject calls to me more than this. Thank you! And thank you for the handy PDF.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Penelope, thank you so much! I’m so sorry you know such loss in your life, and I can well believe what you wrote about there being triggers, even as one continues to move into a new and full and different life. I’m grateful for your words and send many blessings as you continue to remember your husband. Deep peace to you in these Advent days and always. Thank you again!

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