The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
This Sunday marks the beginning of the season of Advent.
Advent is Latin meaning “to come to” – to be both awake and aware in the moment as well as full of joyful anticipation and hopeful preparation. Advent happens as the earth in the Northern hemisphere slides into its shortest days and longest nights. For many of us, December is hard because of the lack of light and the monochromatic landscape. The cold makes it difficult to go outside. Our moods change from optimism to anxiety.
Advent and the preparations for Christmas are cyclical events, ones that repeat. It’s as if we need to continually bring ourselves back to the beginning to see things from a new perspective. So the light shining in darkness that the prophet speaks of, gently guides us to dawn’s light and the hope that lives within its promise.
I left at dawn last winter to fly from Minneapolis to Arizona and begin walking the Arizona Trail. It’s an 800-mile National Scenic Trail from Mexico to the Utah border and surprisingly rocky, rugged and steep.
From 30,000 feet, I watched the colors change from frozen white to an arid tan. Mountains grew out of the dusty floor. Washes worked their fingers into a multitude of branches under cloud shadows. As the captain informed us we were beginning our descent, a snow capped mountain came into view.
I realized, that’s where I’ll walk.
From the temperature-controlled cabin, it was impossible to comprehend what that would be like. Is the snow deep? Is it cold? Will I get lost?!?
To start walking the Arizona Trail requires the hiker to return, to backtrack quite literally. At Coronado National Monument near the Mexico border, it’s a steep climb up to Montezuma Pass with views into a confluence of deserts – Madrean, Sonoran, Chihuhuan and Southern Rockies/Mogollan.
It’s a good perch for border patrol charged with apprehending migrants trying to cross into the US via one of the harshest landscapes imaginable. The border itself is far below, two-and-a-half steep miles and in the opposite direction.
I thought maybe I could just look down and let that be enough. But with this area having recently been damaged to build a small bit of the infamous wall, I felt I needed to take the time and see it on crumbly switchbacks that finally leveled off above a road scarring this beautiful landscape.
And then the wall appeared, foreboding, threatening, like a dorsal fin, the silver border marker placed here in 1855 behind barbed wire. No one was there so I had to snap selfies as the wind picked up something fierce.
I’m smiling in the picture, but a deep sadness overcame me. That was the start, mile 0 in a damaged, half-finished and lonely place. And the metaphor was not lost on me – I needed to go down to go up, I needed to meet the dark place to find the light.
The German Theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.
There’s a wisp of hope in those words. There’s light in the desert when we accept the fact that we’re often in the ‘desert of the soul,’ that we need the light being offered.
The wind howled and that was no place to linger and besides, it was back up crumbling rock, over Montezuma Pass and more aggressively to Miller Peak at 9,100 feet. The walk was rocky and aerie – the view so vast directly off to the side, it was as if I was flying. In all the places I’ve walked, I’ve never quite experienced that kind of vulnerability, that I was just a tiny dot in a tremendous expanse.
As I rounded the canyon I spied a jack pine above, mostly a ghostly trunk stripped of bark. It sat on a flat peninsula reaching out into the sky with just enough room for my tent. I hurried up to get there with just enough time to set as the sky turned a surreal blood orange, a sliver of silver moon above.
Advent teaches us about hope, about the light guiding us through the darkness, a kind of hope that Aristotle called a “waking dream.” It’s funny that from below that jack pine looked stripped of life, but when I got closer, I saw it had just the right number of branches to slow the wind for me to sleep deeply behind it.