It is called the Golden Hour or, sometimes, the Magic Hour. Photographers and filmmakers revere it.
It rarely, if ever, lasts an hour. Usually it is less, though in the far north in deep winter, it might last all day. It is that period just after sunrise, or, more usually, just before sunset when the light is warm and soft and shadows are long and gentle.
During our winters, golden hour is something I glimpse from a window in mid-afternoon. A sight that causes me to pause. For a moment.
Now that it is spring, golden hour is more like a place. We might wander in and out of the house all day, but as sunset nears a new door opens. It no longer matters what indoor tasks are pressing on us (homework, dinner prep, a pile of laundry on the dining-room table). When that door opens we will stay outside until the door swings shut and every last, golden drop vanishes.
This week, in this magic evening place, I have seen a two-year-old girl, her hair the same color as the light, kneel in a sea of violets. She used a stick to stir a basket overflowing with dandelions. She was so focused on her fluffy, yellow stew that she never saw the pink magnolia petals drifting behind her back. She never noticed the bright green buds from the maple tree dusting her shoulders.
This week, in the golden place, I have seen a brother and sister roll their bodies down a green hill, over and over again. My own shadow was so long, reaching toward them, it seemed as if I could wrap shadow arms around them while they rolled. I could use shadow hands to help them back onto their feet.
In the golden hour, all kinds of burdens are lifted. Dinner and homework and laundry matter so much less. Even the daily burden of gravity seems to lift. In this light, we walk somewhere between the earth and the sky, belonging equally to both. When the two-year-old cries, “I catch the moon!” I believe her.
Here is what I have seen in the golden hour: my children are beautiful, the earth is gentle, there is no reason, ever, to be afraid.
Here is why I hesitate to share what I have seen: Baltimore burns, another young black man is dead, wars rage, a marriage is ending, young parents grieve a baby’s diagnosis, a friend has landed back in the hospital.
I am strongly tempted to keep the vision of golden hour a secret. I know that my world is not the whole world. Do I tempt you toward jealousy if I say that this week my life, between the hours of six and eight, is almost unbearably beautiful?
Yet if I am silent then some essential part of the story goes missing.
CNN and NPR tell their stories, and we feel duty-bound to hear them. What about the good news? What about those dispatches from the golden hours?
The door to that place opens and closes according to a will that is not ours. Some evenings bring clouds and rain, and we are given only darkness.
I cannot even begin to guess why this is so.
But I hope that when the clouds move in, and darkness once again surrounds me, that you – yes, you – will have the courage to share your golden visions.
That I might know more of the story and take heart.
That I might glimpse the ending of it all and have hope.
On the first day of Advent, our church sanctuary was draped in evergreen.
There were no shiny ornaments. There were no red or green ribbons. I looked at those unembellished greens and heard them say, “Not yet. Not yet.”
Our home looks much the same. Undecorated, except for the white pumpkin still sitting on the front steps.
It wasn’t intentional. Thanksgiving turned so quickly to Advent, all in a rush of visiting friends and family, that I couldn’t quite keep up. I found the advent wreath in the basement. The boys circled it with greenery. And that was all.
The world outside our walls has thrown on the glitz and made room for the glitter and every other year I have been right there keeping time with that fast Christmas beat.
Not this year. Not yet.
For more than a week, I’ve sat with bare branches, four candles, and a pile of Christmas books. Every other year I have rushed to fill in the gaps, to embellish the plain, and to pile on more. This year the Advent cry Come, Lord Jesus, Come has echoed in bare corners and across empty tabletops.
And I have heard something in those echoes. Something that frightens me.
I have heard as if for the first time the story of how God came and his own did not recognize him. Of how he appeared in a story crowded with a greedy empire, an oppressed people, and long-whispered promises of deliverance and restoration. A good story. A true story. And yet …
Living within the density of their story, God’s own people were unprepared for the ways in which God himself would turn the story inside out and upside down. They were unprepared to meet the Truth face to face.
And this is what I have heard echoing in the empty spaces of my house: who am I waiting for? Will I know him when he comes?
Year after year, I have rushed to fill the empty space of my fireplace with stockings. I have moved quickly to cover bare branches with ornaments. I have penciled in the calendar; I have filled the closet with gifts.
Year after year, I have greeted the Christmas season with everything I already know and all that I have figured out. I have said Come, Lord Jesus, Come to a face I find comfortingly familiar. A face with no more power to shock.
This year should have been the same, but a severe mercy and a difficult grace intended differently.
Without meaning to, I have decked these halls with empty space.
My prayer today remains the same. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. But this time, emptiness has made way for echoes. Bare corners have left room for the unknown and unseen.
And I prepare to have my world turned upside down by the King whose name I call.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
I see the world through a lens of metaphor and story. The magnolia tree near our chicken coop is a love letter. The window in our stairwell is a promise.
Like a pair of good eyeglasses, metaphor helps me see the world and my life more clearly. It is the tool I use to scratch beneath the surface of things.
These days, I am learning its limits.
Or, maybe, I am learning my own limits.
I plunge my arms up to the elbows in a deep farmhouse sink. Snap peas, carrots, a rainbow of swiss chard, and heads of broccoli so richly green they’re also purple. In every moment I can spare, I am harvesting, washing, blanching, freezing, eating, feeding. The kitchen garden we rushed to build and plant this spring has become a fountain. Between the rain and the explosion of good things to eat, that is no metaphor.
Apparently, metaphor has been more than a pair of eyeglasses to me. It has also been my preferred tool for setting up distance between the spiritual world and my own. I have used it to say here are my life and my world and way over there? Can you see it off in the distance? Those are the promises of God. The things that truly matter. We will get there someday.
Except, someday is today.
The things of God are here.
The things of God are now.
In my Bible, I can point out an inky smear of a date. Also, a little scribble of a star. They remind me that two years ago, I heard God say this, “they will make gardens and eat their fruit.”
Those words felt like a promise, and I held on to them through two very unfruitful years. In other words, I believed them. Yet, I know now that I believed them in a hazy, over-spiritualized kind of way.
What if God means exactly what he says?
What if his metaphors indicate, not distance, but nearness?
He promised, and, today, I am eating those words. I have sautéed them in oil and garlic, roasted them at high heat. I have shredded them and peeled them into ribbons. I have tossed them in salads and shared them with neighbors.
They taste good.
I drive around and keep hearing these words from Christina Rossetti’s Christmas poem: “in the bleak midwinter.” They seem to fit the landscape this time of year.
Bare trees. White barns. Grey silos. Black laundry flapping on the clothesline at every Amish farm.
I’m trying to figure out why I love it so much. Why does this place feel like home when the palm trees and turquoise water of a backyard-pool never did?
I love the melancholy, the shadowy, the bittersweet. Hot tea, dark chocolate, sad songs. Always have.
It may sound as if I love darkness, but I don’t actually think that’s the truth.
I love the light, but light always shows up best in a dark room. Candlelight. Starlight. The light of a full moon. It is as if we must have both light and darkness together, side by side, in order to glimpse the Story.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
That is a very good story (and I love a good story most of all).
Explore the growing collection of Advent imagery here.
Click here to subscribe to There is a River and here to connect with There is a River on facebook.
That’s quite a confession, isn’t it? I may as well admit to disliking puppies.
Slowing down, living in the moment, appreciating the ordinary gifts of each ordinary hour: those aspirations have become a kind of religion. Widely admired if less widely achieved.
Like most religions, I suppose, there’s a commendable seed of truth. I do believe that the moment matters. Of what else is our life composed? Whether I’m considering growing children or changing seasons, I want to notice. To appreciate. To pause and give thanks.
And yet, I wonder … why do we find this so difficult? Why is there always something inside of us looking ahead, peering around the bend? Why the inner voice always asking “what’s next”?
I think this voice won’t ever fully let us go because we are not living in some eternal moment. We long for that. We dream of it, but we don’t inhabit it. Not yet, anyway.
Our lives are journeys. Our lives are stories. There are beginnings and endings, narrative lulls and cliffhangers. Mountains and valleys.
To look ahead, to anticipate all that’s yet to come … this is the substance of faith. This is the shape of Christian spirituality.
We pick up our crosses and follow One worth following.
We run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
We strain our eyes looking for promised lands, for God’s kingdom breaking in, for creation made new.
The moment may be good. It may be very, very good. But we know that we’ve been promised even more.
“All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson