One of my favorite part of Advent is the lighting of candles. The prayers, the symbolism, the ceremony and tradition; I love it all. As a matter of fact, in our family we like lighting candles so much, that, a couple of years ago we added Chanukah candles to our lighting tradition. (A Jewish friend of ours) Mimi and her daughter came over one evening during Chanukah and shared this sacred Jewish rite with us. We learned a great deal and through that experience of Judaism, our Christian faith was strengthened. This year I think we’re going to add Kwanzaa candles!
Well, on this first Sunday of Advent, we’re once again invited to celebrate the tradition of lighting the Advent candles. And each candle, as you probably already know, has a unique significance. Today’s candle, the first candle, symbolizes Hope.
I was reminded of the Hope Candle when I read the following words from the pen of Anne Lamont. She says that light, candles, and full moons actually magnify the spirit. “That is a neat trick,” she writes, “to magnify the invisible, and it raises the question: Is there another room, stage left, one we cannot see?”[i]
Doesn’t Anne Lamott sound a bit like the Prophet Jeremiah here? Isn’t he also speaking of something akin to “magnifying the invisible?” Jeremiah is speaking about a promise that we cannot see right now, in this moment; but this invisible promise will be magnified, realized someday through the righteousness and justice of a Messiah. Jeremiah said that God “…will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land.”
This passage has come to be called the “hope” of Jeremiah. And it’s interesting. It’s interesting to me that amid all the warnings and condemnation we hear from the prophet, these words of hope stand out. Why? Well, I think Jeremiah understood that even in the midst of struggle, even when God seems distant, even when conquers are marshalling on the border; even when justice and peace and equality seem invisible; there’s still a glimmer of hope. Even in the invisibility of death, hope magnified, breathes new life.
There’s a wonderful scene in the story of The Secret Garden, when a boy named Dickon and his friend Mary explore a wonderful hidden garden. It appears that many branches of the trees and the rose bushes are dead–the word “gray” is repeated again and again. But Dickon takes out a knife and cuts into a branch, where he finds “a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray,” and he assures Mary that, deep inside, the tree is a “wick,” full of life and promise and hope.[ii]
Jesus, our “wick” life and promise and hope, our righteous Branch, the one who preached justice and embodied righteousness teaches us, above all else, to embrace the diversity that is humanity. This is our hope. Why? Because Jesus wanted his followers, back then and still today, to see that all humanity evolved from a common root. A common root that branched out becoming many races and nations and religions. But in the end, when it’s all said and done, that we’re all leaves of a single tree.
Righteousness then, Justice, comes in recognizing this commonality. The goal of Christianity finally isn’t to make everyone else believe as we believe or behave as we behave, rather it’s to coexist within this diversity that is humanity. When we’re instructed to spread the Good News “to all the ends of the earth,” it’s an invitation to share the grace and love and compassion of Christ by respecting the culture of others, not try to eradicate it. If we’re ever going to make progress toward peace, toward a more just society, this is where we must begin. This, I think, is the hope of Advent.
Diana Butler Bass, in her most recent book, Grateful, shares a common thought about the nature of hope. Her story takes place outside the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, just a few months after a white supremacist had shot and killed nine people there. “As I stared at the flowers and letters on the makeshift memorial wall,” she wrote, “marking this sad and lonely place, and contemplating the legacy of slavery and the evil of racism, I caught sight of two African American men at the periphery. With flowers in hand, they were waiting to approach the wall. I stepped aside to make way for them. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, the men attempted to take a selfie in front of the church. They were not very good at it. ‘Would you like me to take your picture?’ I asked. ‘Yes, please,’ one responded as he handed me his I Phone. I snapped their picture and held out the phone to give it back to its owner as he remarked, ‘We came a long way to be here. Thank you so much.’ I replied, ‘I’m so sorry. It’s the least I can do. It was awful, just, I’m so sorry.’ My voice broke a little bit,” she said. But instead of reaching for the phone, the man reached toward me and gave me a hug.”[iii]
What a wonderful example of hope. There they stood, together, a random black man hugging a tiny Caucasian author next to a wall that was created by hate, by racism; a wall created because of human division. But I think a crack began to form in that wall that day, even if it was just a tiny one, and a little grace, a little hope, began to trickle through.
I don’t know. What cracks might we created today? Where might we shine a little hope into the darkness of today’s world? Perhaps, in this Season of Advent, on this Sunday of Hope, we might, like the prophet of old, recognize that even in the most difficult times, even when the branch seems gray and dead, even when it seems like all hope has faded; might we too recognize the Righteous Branch in our midst. My friends, in Christ, and through Christ, and because of Christ, the candle of hope is still burning. Oh, it may flicker from time to time, but the flame of justice, the branch of righteousness, the hope that propagates faith: that endures.
I would like to leave you with one final thought today. One of my favorite poets, Maya Angelou, penned the following words and I thought this might be a fitting commission for our time together today.
“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” And with all humility I would add: Let the hope of Advent be the olive branch of peace you extend to all humanity and all of creation.
May it be so for you and for me.
[i] Anne Lamont Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.
[iii] Diana Butler Bass Grateful. (San Francisco: Harper One, 2018) pgs. 99-100