The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of darkness, a light has dawned.
~ Isaiah 9:2
I love the candle lighting ceremony that takes place in Christmas Eve services! The warm glow of dozens, if not hundreds, of candles being lit fills me with a sense of peace as the congregation reflects on what this time of year is all about. In fact, I enjoy that time so much that instead of blowing out my candle as soon as everyone else does I always try to see how long I can keep my candle lit before someone tells me to blow out my candle (Childish? Perhaps, but I do it anyway). But its not just the ethereal beauty of what would be an otherwise large and dark sanctuary space being lit with a golden light that illuminates everyone’s faces. When I gaze at those candles, I see stillness. I see peace. You see, those beacons of light don’t crackle and spark with the energy of a fire in a fireplace. Nor do they roar with the sound that comes from an out-of-control, raging inferno that occurs with wildfires. Rather, those singular flames are silent and still. They are controlled by the wick and the wax and the surrounding oxygen in order to survive.
I think those candles have much to teach us about what Advent and Christmas is all about. I think they reflect our all-too human longing for light and life in a world that is otherwise dark and dead. And to that end, there is good news! As Scripture proclaims, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1: 4).
Followers of Christ believe that Christ has come, and that because he has come, that he is in the process of redeeming all aspects of life – our hopes and joys as well as our disappointments and sorrows. This is, in part, the light that Scripture speaks of. Just as a candle lighting ceremony begins with one flame that is passed on from candle to candle, so too the light of Christ is shared with all who are willing to be set on fire for God. In the process, this light is spread around the world, transforming it and redeeming it, as more and more people respond to his invitation to come to him.
Of course, despite the opinion of popular culture, followers of Christ are not naive. We are also acutely aware that all is not right with the world. Like the shadows of darkness that dance around and yet are pierced by the light, our lives and our world – our cities and communities – face the constant threat of being plunged into darkness should those flames be extinguished. One doesn’t need to look far in the headlines of the news to discover this. Just a few days ago, there was a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children, ages 6 and 7, were killed along with seven adult victims.
In addition to school shootings such as the one at Newtown, we see the results when people either refuse the invitation to receive this light or, after having accepted it initially, choose to blow it out. Poverty. War. Disease. Racism. Modern-day slavery. Genocide. All these and more take their toll on our communities and on our lives both corporately and individually. And then there are the more personal disappointments that affect us emotionally and relationally which we all face whenever we risk living in community with others. Divorce. Suicide. Loneliness. Spouse and child abuse. Addictions. It would seem at times that if Christ has come to redeem the world that little redeeming is actually taking place, that if he has come to shine light that little light is being shown.
However, like the ancient Israelites who hoped and waited in anticipation for the Messiah to come, we also place our hope that what Christ began by assuming his own creation, and which he continued on the cross and in his resurrection, will find its fulfillment when he returns again. In the meantime, he invites us to draw upon him. The candle lighting process has already begun. And so now he invites us to draw upon his Light as a source of light in an otherwise dark world. As the wax and the surrounding oxygen give source to the light, so Christ is the never-ending source to our ability to be light. It’s this invitation to rely upon Christ in the in-between times, between the darkness that is fading away and the light that is dawning, which is what Advent is about.
And I find that Advent is best expressed in the lyrics of the centuries old hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. While the hymn entreats Christ to come to us, Patty Kirk reflects on what it means for us to respond to Christ’s call to come to him in her book The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent:
Answering the call to come in Scripture almost always results in faith. When Jesus raises a widow’s son from death, his followers and a large crowd of mourners from the woman’s town not only believe Jesus is a great prophet and are filled with awe but, in their astonishment, unwittingly proclaim the good news of Christmas: “God has come to help his people” (Luke 7:16). God has come. 1
I believe Patty Kirk is on to something. Perhaps the problem in this time of waiting has less to do with whether or not Christ has come (because you either trust that he has or not), but with whether we are willing to respond, in faith, to Christ’s call to come to him and be caught up in his grace-tranforming and light-spreading activity in the world. In the “already-not yet” time of waiting, Christ invites us to bring before him our burdens, our grief, our disappointments, our pain. He doesn’t promise to remove the situation that we face. For the families and friends of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School, life cannot go back to the way it was. Yet, since the tragedy, many people have been answering Christ’s call to come to him the form of church services, prayer, and candle light vigils. It would seem that people have an innate sense, especially in the midst of tragedies, of the need for a source of light that can endure – of a light that shines in the darkness and which will not be overcome. 2
I began this post talking about the joyful candle light ceremonies that are held at Christmas Eve services. For many people, not only in Newtown, but in communities around the world, the candle lighting ceremony at Christmas Eve services will be decidedly less joyful. However, there will come a day when their hope for light to replace the darkness will be fulfilled. In the meantime, it is my hope and my prayer that the residents of Newtown, CT and everyone else who is grieving this Christmas season them might learn to find light and life as they respond to Christ’s invitation to come by choosing to hope and sing:
“Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high, / And cheer us by your drawing nigh, / Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, / And death’s dark shadows put to flight. / Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to you, O Israel!” 3
1 Patty Kirk, The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP Books, 2012), p. 15.
2 To view a video on how the community of Newtown has responded to Christ’s invitation, go to the following webpage. The Wall Street Journal.com, “Town United by Grief Searches for Answers” Tamer El-Ghobashy, Matthew Dolan and Josh Dawsey. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323723104578183530331275590.html. Video by Evan Simon.
3 For the full lyrics, go to: Lutheran-Hymnal.com, “Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel” <http://www.lutheran-hymnal.com/lyrics/lw031.htm>.