It was the summer of 1981, and I had just finished sitting my final exams at university. And my friends and I were enjoying that glorious sense of freedom and liberation that comes when a particularly gruelling series of exams is finally over. It felt wonderful! And because we were in South Wales, near the Gower peninsular, we decided to celebrate our new-found freedom by going to the beach for an evening barbecue.
Now, those of you who are familiar with that particular stretch of coastline will know that the beaches there are absolutely stunning – particularly if you are prepared to abandon your car and walk some distance across difficult terrain to reach some of the more obscure little coves that are hidden between the cliffs. And because one of our number was studying marine biology and happened to have undertaken his final year dissertation on the subject of barnacles (balanus balanoides – the Latin name for them has been scored in my memory ever since), we had an expert guide to the beaches of the Gower in our very midst.
So we drove to the coast, taking with us all the provisions we needed for the barbecue, parked the car, and then walked for a mile or so over the cliffs, negotiating rocks and bracken, a lot of sheep, barbed wire fences, and the occasional rather scary precipitous drop. But our efforts were more than rewarded, because, aided by our marine biologist guide, eventually we came to the most exquisite little sandy cove. It was the perfect setting: completely isolated and still, and extremely quiet, apart from the cry of the seabirds and the gentle sound and motion of the sea; and despite the wonderfully warm summer weather, there was not another soul in sight.
We built a fire on the beach (which these days would probably be completely illegal), we cooked our barbecue, and we had a truly wonderful and memorable evening, culminating in one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. And it was so warm and so pleasant that we sat there far into the night by the light of the fire, talking and feeling at one with the natural world and with each other, until about two o’clock in the morning, when we finally decided that we really ought to pack up and make for home. So we gathered our possessions, carefully bagged up all of our rubbish, and then, finally, put out the fire.
At which point we suddenly discovered that we had a serious problem. Because it was only when we put the fire out that we realised that it was in fact our only source of light. And because we were all accustomed to living in an urban environment, with houses and street lighting all around us, it came as a real shock to discover quite how dark the world can be in the absence of artificial light. More seriously, we were faced with the daunting task of trying to retrace our steps in pitch darkness, along a route that had been challenging and at times actually dangerous even in broad daylight.
What followed was for me one of the most frightening experiences of my entire life. We stumbled over rocks and became impaled on barbed wire, rapidly losing all sense of direction and horribly aware of just how perilous the terrain was. We felt our way along slippery paths and narrow ridges unable to see virtually anything at all, and with the terrifying sound of the waves crashing far below. Fearful and disorientated, I can remember being acutely aware of how lost and vulnerable I felt – and just enormously grateful that at least I was not having to make that journey alone.
Anyway, having stumbled along for what felt like an absolute eternity, with no idea at all of where we were heading, eventually we climbed over a sizeable rock – and then, suddenly, there in the distance was a sight that gladdened our hearts beyond measure. It was the sight of a solitary street lamp. And a street lamp meant a road! It meant civilisation! Safety! Getting home again in one piece! And I swore to myself that I would never ever take the privilege of street lighting for granted ever again!
You see, the really interesting thing is that you can only truly appreciate light – and value light – and understand why light matters – if you have experienced its absence. In other words, you have to know something about the reality of darkness in order fully to appreciate light. Just as it can take an unexpected power-cut to remind you suddenly of the value of candles, and of the need to keep matches in a place where you can actually find them.
And that is also why the Church’s calendar, which begins afresh today with the start of the season of Advent, is so important – and also, I have to say, so clever. Why is Advent traditionally a season of penitence? Why is our altar frontal dark blue today? Why is Advent the time when traditionally the Church addresses some of the most profound and challenging themes: to do with darkness and death and judgment? The answer is that, in order to prepare ourselves properly to celebrate the coming of the light of Christ into the world at Christmas, we must first remind ourselves of what darkness is really all about; re-engage with it; make it our own; inhabit it for a while. Because only then can we begin to understand, at a deep level, why Christmas matters. And it is unquestionably the case that the best Christmas celebrations I have ever experienced have always been directly linked with my having made the effort to make a proper Advent journey. Because in order to appreciate light, you first have to experience darkness.
The one thing that made my scramble over the Gower rocks in pitch darkness bearable, was the knowledge that I was not travelling alone: I had companions with me, who were sharing the experience. And in the same way, when we make the journey through Advent during these four Sundays, we do not travel alone: we share that journey together. And by travelling the journey together as members of the family of the Church, in the process we can also begin to equip ourselves to face those difficult times when they arise for us in real life.
Because one of the hardest things that any human being ever has to deal with is darkness. Real darkness. The kind of spiritual or emotional darkness that descends the moment that you wake up in the morning, and envelopes every moment of the day that lies ahead. The kind of darkness that feels like a life sentence, because you cannot envisage how it can possibly ever end. Anyone who has ever experienced deep bereavement, the loss of someone really close, will probably recognise what I am describing. The same is also true of despair – the kind of despair that can descend over your life like a thick fog, obscuring everything else around you, sapping you of energy, draining the life from you.
And the Christian faith dares to speak to us of hope in the midst of such terrible darkness. How can it possibly do so? And what is the difference between genuine and authentic hope, and a kind of misplaced and delusional fantasy that somehow it will all go away eventually if we do our best not to face the reality of the situation we are in.
Real hope – the kind of hope that the Christian faith proclaims – is a very different thing from daydreams and wishful thinking – which is, of course, why it so often comes to us in the form of a gift; unexpected, catching us completely unawares. Real hope is sometimes borne of the merest glimpse of a new possibility – real hope can be quite a fragile thing, as vulnerable as a flickering candle flame, like the one on our Advent wreath, although no less real for all that. And it is a hope that will sometimes have to compete with the temptation to despair.
When we, as a worshipping community experience and explore the darkness of Advent, as we wait for the light of Christ to dawn, we do not do so alone. This is a journey that we travel together; and it is a journey that we travel with God; and because we are not alone, we need not be afraid.
The American humourist and social commentator Will Rogers once said: ‘The best way out of a difficulty is through it.’ In similar vein, the Christian faith teaches us that, if we really seek to find the true light, we first have to take the risk of journeying into the heart of darkness. That is the journey for which Advent prepares us. Because, in the words of the Psalmist:
‘If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the night will enclose me’; the darkness is no darkness with you, but the night is as clear as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike.’
And thanks be to God for that.