“Between Black Friday and CyberMonday”  Advent 1B

Happy New Year!  Today is the first day of the new liturgical year.  Say “Hello” to Year B!  Unlike our secular New Year’s holiday, Advent does not come in with a bang, but with a whimper.  Advent is overshadowed because it falls between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the two giant orgies of consumer spending signaling the countdown of shopping days left until Christmas.

Where did the term Black Friday come from?  Most of us naturally assume that it comes from the world of retail because it is thought to be the day when store ledgers go from red to black insuring a great end of the year profit margin for stores and businesses.  Well, Black Friday may be connected to the shopping frenzy that occurs on the day after Thanksgiving, but its origin isn’t related to Christmas shoppers at all.  The term was first used in “a 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance, … an industry journal. And there's an article in (it) that begins like this - again, this is 1951 - quote: Friday after Thanksgiving-itis is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that's the feeling of those who have to get production out when the Black Friday comes along.”

So, instead of Black Friday being a day for shoppers to show up, it was originally a day when factory workers were absent!  But wait, there’s another reference from the 1960’s where the day after Thanksgiving was called Black Friday.  This time it was police in Philadelphia who used the term to refer to all the traffic snarls they had to sort out when everyone hit the roads to go shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  For the police, it was just the worst day imaginable to try and direct the city traffic.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the term Black Friday began to be associated with retailers and their profits.

Then we have cybermonday.  This is a relatively modern term, only in usage since 2005 when the people who track trends and patterns online noticed that there seemed to be a large uptick in the number of people shopping online.  They guessed there were a lot of people who didn’t have time to shop on Black Friday, or maybe they shopped but couldn't get their hands on the products they were looking for, so when everyone went back to work on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the computers were fired up and online sales skyrocketed because there were no crowds and lines to fight.  One needs only to sit in the comfy living room chair or at one’s desk in the privacy of one’s cubicle and surf-shop.

But, wait.  What about Small Business Saturday?  In the last few years I’ve noticed an emphasis on shopping local mom and pop stores on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Let’s see.  Thursday is the feeding frenzy, Friday, Saturday and Monday are the shop till you drop days.  What’s missing?  Oh yeah.  Sunday.  I guess Sunday is a travel day for all who need to come back home from their holiday happenings.  Maybe that’s what Sunday is for most people, but for us, it is the first Sunday of the season of Advent.  It is a day when we look darkness in the eye and admit our longing for something to make us feel whole and unafraid.  It is a day when we sit in the dark and let it envelop us.  If we are too quick to run into the light, we may miss out on some deep and significant mysteries about ourselves, our faith, and our relationship with God.

I read a fantastic book last week called “Learning to Walk in the Dark” written by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.  It was a perfect way to prepare for this Advent season of preparation.  The author studies “darkness” from many different perspectives and works from the thesis that our Christian theology has done a disservice to darkness.  We have been brought along to believe that darkness is bad, frightening, evil, and to be avoided at all costs.  Think back to the time when you were a small child.  Did you sleep with a nightlight?  Were you afraid of the dark?  Did you think monsters lurked in the shadows of your room or under your bed?  Were you allowed to play outside after dark?  When dusk came, was your house immediately flooded with artificial light to keep the dark at bay?

There are lots of stories in the Bible that reinforce the notion of binary thinking… that is when it comes to opposites one is somehow better than the other.  Think of it this way…. flesh and spirit, male and female, light and dark… we have somehow been led to believe that one of the pair is closer to God and the other is far away.  In actuality, flesh and spirit are two states of being.  One is not more holy than the other although we have been taught to seek spirit and deny the flesh.  Male and female were both created in God’s image, yet the male has been regarded as superior and the female subordinate.  So too, light and dark are part of a cycle of life yet we have been conditioned to be creatures of light and to shun the dark.  Well, I have news for you… in Genesis 1 when God created the world, darkness was there first.  It was out of the dark that everything was created.  God said, “Let there be light.”  God never said, “Let there be dark.”  God didn't have to.  Everything that was created came from the realm of the mysterious darkness.

Barbara Brown Taylor names many Bible stories in which the dark is the medium for divine encounters between people and God.  Jacob and his son Joseph dreamed big dreams in the dark.  Jacob wrestled with the angel all night.  God took Abraham outside at night to look at the stars and to make a covenant.  In the psalms we learn that the darkness is not dark to God and there is nowhere we can go where God cannot find us even if we are in the deepest darkness… God is there with us.  Jesus was born at night in a cave and the resurrection happened in the darkness of a different cave.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.  Jesus walked on the water at night.  

There are many examples where dark and night called forth creative powers and transformation.  What if we began to develop our night vision?  What things would we see?  How many fears could we come to terms with?  How many monsters could we slay?  One thing I learned from Barbara’s book was the term “endarkenment.”  We know sages and mystics and religious seekers all search for enlightenment, but the other side of that is just as important.  Yes, it is essential for spiritual growth to learn of light but how much deeper could our spirituality go if we also discovered the secrets the dark can teach us?

When we come across strange passages in the scriptures such as our gospel reading for this morning, instead of responding with fear and confusion, why not dig in and walk in the darkness to befriend the mystery?  Mark tells us about some unusual events that would be taking place accompanied by strange natural phenomena… darkened sun and moon, falling stars, shaking heavens.  These are the signs that signal the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds with angels who will gather the elect from the four winds and from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

These are all Old Testament images from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah and Daniel.  Perhaps this section was inserted in the gospel of Mark at this point because it prepares the readers for what comes next… namely Jesus’ passion and crucifixion.  Perhaps, Jesus is trying to tell the disciples to pay attention to what is going on around them.  Things were about to become very strange and the disciples, especially, needed to be clued in lest they fall into despair and depression and disappear before God’s grand finale… the resurrection.

Jesus continues his discourse by reminding the disciples that the only way they can understand what is going on is by learning to walk in the dark… that is by keeping alert and keeping awake.  Since God is the one in control of these events, the disciples must watch and wait without falling asleep.  But we know they did fall asleep when Jesus asked them to watch and pray with him in the garden.

The disciples were alerted to the hard times ahead, but they did not remember to watch and wait.  They let their fear and confusion of the dark distract them from understanding the signs that signaled the triumph of God over the powers of sin and death.

If you really want to grow in your spiritual life, perhaps you can try walking in the dark.  If you don’t like the idea of perhaps stumbling around or stubbing your toe, maybe just sitting in the dark would work.  If you sit quietly in the dark you will notice that your other senses turn up the volume.  Your hearing becomes more acute, you may notice more smells, you may feel more sensations on your skin.  If you sit in the dark and try to talk to the darkness you may find a whole host of treasure that is available for the taking… courage, curiosity, creativity, self-awareness, emptiness, openness, adventure, humility, a loving spirit.

Walking in the dark between Black Friday and CyberMonday, we must try and resist the temptation to turn the lights on too quickly.  Advent is sometimes referred to as a “little Lent.”  Advent is similar to lent because it can be a time to fast and pray, to clean the house, and to prepare for Christ’s return.  Forget about counting down the shopping days until Christmas and instead count the ways you have been a voice for justice in a world of suffering.  We can fast from singing Christmas carols, putting up all the decorations before Halloween, and opening our presents.  If we do all of these things today then Christmas comes too early and Advent becomes a travel day… an irritation and annoyance that must be endured.  We can clean our spiritual house of negativity and cynicism and freshen things up with hope and expectancy for the new thing God is doing in our lives.  We can prepare for the return of Christ by replacing fear with the certainty that God has the final say over the destiny of creation.

Learning to walk in the dark is not easy but neither is Advent.  I will let the author have the last word.  She writes: (Why not) “become more curious about your own darkness.  What can you learn about your fear of it by staying with it for a moment before turning on the lights?  Where can you feel the fear in your body?  When have you felt that way before?  What are you afraid is going to happen to you, and what is your mind telling you to do about it?  What stories do you tell yourself to keep your fear in place?  What helps you stay conscious even when you are afraid?  What have you learned in the dark that you could never have learned in the light?”  (p. 184 Kindle edition)

I encourage you then to go out and seize the dark!  Befriend it.  Live in it.  Learn from it.  Listen to it.  For in so doing you may find God in places you never imagined.  This Advent, become endarkened!

 © Victoria Moss 2020