Advent is upon us! For those unfamiliar with the liturgical tradition and traditional church year calendar, Advent is more than a calendar counting down the days towards Christmas. Instead, it is a season all its own and one of significance in the Christian faith.
In the traditional church year, Advent marks a season of anticipation and waiting. We remember those who lived before Jesus in their anxious anticipation for the promised Messiah. We recognize those living after Jesus (including now and in the future) in their eager anticipation of His return and the fulfillment of His kingdom. Poignantly timed during Winter (at least for those of us in the western hemisphere), this time of waiting resembles that of nature; how it hibernates, delves deep into the ground, closes up, waiting for Spring and rebirth.
Before the light of Spring, comes darkness.
Darkness is a prevalent theme in Advent. On the very first day of Advent, my daily reading led me to Romans 13:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.Romans 13:11-12
It also led me to 1 Thessalonians 5:
The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. Encourage one another and build one another up.1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
I don’t think it’s an accident that we begin the new church year in darkness. I also don’t think it’s an accident that we move quickly from Advent to Christmas – from darkness into light. We are clearly called to do the same. We, as Christians, are not of the night; however, it takes intentional actions to come out of the darkness and into the light. Over and over again, we are called to step into the light of Jesus. One of my very favorite prophecies about Christ is Isaiah 9:2, especially taken with the fulfillment in John
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.Isaiah 9:2
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life,[a] and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1-5
Now, we know that Tolkien was not one for allegory. However, the symbols of his deeply held faith are difficult not to notice. The symbols of darkness and light are some of those, particularly in the Simarillion.
In the beginning of creation, “Illuvatar made visible the song of the Ainur and they beheld it as a light in the darkness.” Shortly after, as some of the Ainur made their dwelling place on Arda, Varda, lady of the stars known by the Elves as Elbereth, found that “in light [was] her power and her joy.” And Melkor, who “began with the desire for light…. but descended… into darkness” feared her more than all others. In contrast, the Elves held her in deepest regard.
‘These are High Elves! They spoke the name of Elbereth!’ said Frodo in amazement. ‘Few of that fairest folk are ever seen in the Shire. Not many now remain in Middle Earth, east of the Great Sea!”The Fellowship of the Ring,
As the Valar took to the creation of dwellings on Arda, their greatest tasks were set to the creation of light. In Almaren, they created the lamps. In Valinor, they created the trees. Both sources of light were catalysts for the beauty of the Valar’s homes. Similarly, Melkor’s destruction was completed by destroying them.
“Yavanna wept by the mound in fear that the Darkness should swallow the last rays of the Light of Valinor for ever.”The Simarillion,
When Feanor chose to create gems more beautiful and precious than any other before or after (the Simarils), he filled them with the light of the trees. When Melkor stole the Simarils and took them as his own, he placed them within a crown of black iron. Further, Melkor’s servants, such as the Balrogs and Ungoliant, were “cloaked in darkness.”
Illuvatar knew, from the first notes of discord that Melkor wove into the Song, that darkness was entering his creation. In his sovereignity, he knew also that all the darkness that Melkor meant for evil would ultimately be “but an instrument” for fulfilling Illuvatar’s will for good. At the beginning of Ea, we see the Flame Imperishable or the Secret Fire set into the heart of Arda, giving it life. This Fire was a bit of Illuvatar himself, an aspect of his power, which brought light and life into the world. Tolkien likened it to the Holy Spirit which, of course, was gifted to men after Christ. Servants of Illuvatar were ever seeking to bring light amidst the darkness.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Gandalf. Upon entering Middle Earth on behalf of the Valar, Cirdan the Shipwright bequeathed him one of the three elven rings:
“Take this ring, master,” he said, “for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”The Simarillion
Gandalf labors against Sauron (servant of Melkor) for many a year and infamously falls in The Fellowship of the Ring during a battle with a Balrog (who, as we’ve already mentioned, is a dark servant of Melkor’s, cloaked in darkness). During battle, Gandalf cries:
“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”The Fellowship of the Ring
Readers (or watchers) are delighted to find Gandalf return in The Two Towers:
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; his eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand… ‘Yes, I am white now,’ said Gandalf. ‘Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been’.”The Two Towers
Similar to Ea, our world has fallen. God knew with the first folly of Adam and Eve that darkness would seek to prevail. The servants of darkness are every tempting and trying mankind, while the servants of light are ever seeking for their actions to be used for good. Just as Illuvatar sent the Flame Imperishable and the Valar sent Gandalf, God sent us light; He sent us the light of man in Christ Jesus; He sent us fire and power in the Holy Spirit. Though darkness does not cease to exist, though we must muddle through it in anticipation of a world reborn, we move in love and grace ever closer to the light.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”The Return of the King