[During the season of Advent, I will be sharing four of my favorite Christmas columns from the past 25 years.]
The season is upon us. Advent. Preparation.
It is time to cut the tree, dust off the ornaments and make the lists. Time to check the calendar and sign the cards and wrap the gifts. Time to stand in line and stop in traffic. Time to get it all done in time.
Christians have been observing Advent since sometime around the fourth century. My own observance is a relatively new one. I am still burning the original purple and rose candles that came with the wreath that now sits in the middle of my kitchen table.
The sun will soon disappear behind the pine trees at the edge of the farm. The silvery gray of late autumn will settle over Sandhill like a blanket and nighttime will begin its predictable creep over the landscape, into my thoughts.
I am wondering why I am doing this. What difference it can possibly make.
I pull out a chair and, spurred by what is quite possibly nothing more than guilt, promise myself that this year I will be diligent. I will not get too busy to light each candle in its turn. I will -- on the first and second and third and fourth Sundays of Advent -- calm myself, still myself, give myself the time to reflect.
Holding the match over the matchbox, I look at the unlit candles. The wicks are black and brittle. Lines of dripping wax have marred their colors with uneven streaks. One tilts just a bit to the side despite my best efforts to straighten it. They remind me that – despite the frivolity and gaiety, the bells and carols, the good-will and neighborliness in which we cloak ourselves this time of year – it was not into a world of light that the Messiah came, but a world of darkness.
Every day brought the drudgery of political oppression, religious persecution and economic despair. The past was a sad indictment of the Jews’ failure as a people. The future promised nothing but more of the same.
For four thousand years they had been waiting. In darkness. The words they rehearsed in their children’s ears had become dull in the repetition. The memorials of stone they had built had been lost in the years of wind and rain and neglect. Did anyone still believe? Could anyone still believe?
And at that moment, into the silence came the voice of an angel. A divine herald, a prophetic courier with words of promise and hope, a message to the world that what is now is not what will always be. A message for all the world.
But the only one who heard it, the single soul with whom Gabriel shared the news was one simple girl. No one else. Not the High Priest or the commander of the occupying army. Not the ruling governor or a learned scribe. Just a simple girl with a wild imagination.
Wild enough to stay there and listen to the messenger angel call her things like “highly favored” and “blessed.” Wild enough to listen to him tell her she was going to be the mother of the long-awaited nearly-forgotten Messiah. Wild enough to believe.
Twenty-first century Americans aren’t all that different from first century Palestinians, I think. I am no different. I, we struggle with our past failures, wrestle with current crises, worry about a future we can’t predict. What will it take for us – for me – to see through the darkness?
Only one thing. The same thing it took for Mary. Call it a wild imagination or call it faith. Either way, it requires eyes that see the invisible. Ears that hear something in the silence. Hands that extend in the direction of the irrational, the impossible, the unthinkable.
I pause, breathe deeply, strike the match. I light the first candle. The flame leaps up, flickers, steadies itself. Across the room the small light reappears, a reflection in the window. The solitary candle becomes two and in the window beside it three and then four.
The candle of hope. Hope that the darkness will not always envelop the earth. Hope that the promise will be fulfilled. Hope that each heart that still listens will echo the whispered assent of the simple girl: Be it done unto me according to thy word.
Copyright 1995, 2021