What are you hoping for in the new year? Have you been thinking about that? The past few days have been filled with people saying how glad they will be to see 2020 go, moved to the year view mirror, or made a distant memory. Those are the sentiments the misery of facing a global pandemic will churn in us. If only it were as easy as turning the page on the calendar. Sadly, disappointingly, we’re likely to awaken to a 2021 that looks a lot like the end of 2020. I don’t mean to be a Daniel Downer, and I am optimistic that 2021 is going to eventually bring a brighter future, it’s just going to take a while.
So, realistically, what are your hopes for 2021? I’ve heard things like “being able to hug my (fill in the blank) – Mom, Grandma, grandchildren, neighbor . . . Having never been one that was too keen on hugs I’d have to say this one is not that high on my list, but I can understand the sentiment behind it. We’ve had to be so distanced from one another this past year, the need for compassionate touch is real. Handshakes, fist bumps, side hugs and even bear hugs will be welcomed (for the most part) in 2021. I envision a day when we can have a big facemask bonfire, shake hands at church again, and serve each other communion (though perhaps those things do not happen all together).
What else might we be hoping for? Speaking of church, I’m hoping for the resumption of in-person worship. We did 20 weeks of online only worship in our congregation in 2020 and we will begin 2021 that same way. I have not seen some people face to face since early March of 2020. While I am thankful for the ability to be connected in that way, I’m ready to see people in the pews again. Aren’t you?
There’s something about candles, candlelight services, and candle lit spaces and Christmas. The soft glow of a candle’s light brings an inviting warmth to a space and a moment. Candles held, lit and clustered together in procession or praise offer an ambiance unlike any other. I have early memories of attending Christmas Eve candlelight services, longing to be old enough to be trusted with my own candle. It was a right of passage, that moment, not just of age, but of responsibility and privilege to add my own small light to the collective whole. I was represented in that light, offering worship to the newborn king.
The candlelight Christmas Eve service remains one of the most cherished of the year. It’s a congregation unlike any other all year. People typically arrive at the last moment – rushing from family gatherings and celebrations to be there just in time. Those gathered are a combination of out of town family, neighbors and community folk looking for a Christmas service, and faithful congregants who help “swell the crowd” on a weekly basis. With many of our own having traveled elsewhere, the Christmas Eve congregation often has a newness about it. These are people whom I don’t know all that well – including a few who were drug along by insistent relatives, notably uncomfortable with the idea of singing or praying. They don’t linger long after the service. But when it comes time to light the candles, everyone participates and with enthusiasm. Why is that?
Sure, there is the peer pressure of the moment. You wouldn’t want to be the dud who refused to light your candle. You’d stick out like that half-strand of lights that went out on the tree at home. And there is the emotion, drawing us in like a baby’s smile or Grandma’s sugar cookies. But I’m want to think there’s something else – something akin to what awkward shepherd’s felt as they journeyed to Bethlehem to see the babe in the manger. It’s something like what regal wise men demonstrated on their later homage to the new king. We have, in our humanity, a need to acknowledge and worship the Christ.
Holding that lit candle, if only for the duration of a few verses of Silent Night, transports us into the presence of the Light of the World. And, we too, want to shed a little light; and add our lumens to those of many others in corporate recognition that this Light shines upon us and the world we call home. This Light burns in our heart – always, often, or only on this night. This Light floods the dark corners of our selves and reveals that God knows it all, sees it all, yet loves us and comes to redeem and restore us. This light, shared in collective worship, appeals to God on behalf of the world God loves for peace, hope, healing and restoration.
How can a simple lit candle, held aloft in unison with others, represent so much? What will it represent for you this year? Many a Christmas Eve service, including our own, will be held virtually in 2020 as this horrid pandemic keeps us physically apart. But I hope we will each light our Christmas Eve candles as we worship. Perhaps we will even share their light with our neighbors – finding ways to light the windows of our homes or lighting luminaries on the sidewalk or driveway. Our light(s) will be our witness to the hope of Christ for a broken and sick world, to the promise of redemption for all of our sin-sick souls.
So, fret not, you who are mourning the loss of tradition – including the Christmas Eve service as we’ve known it. Think not of what is being lost, but of what is being kept and perhaps shared in new ways. Hold your candle high and know that in its solitary light, it joins in solidarity with a multitude of other lights to show the way to Bethlehem.
Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Isaiah 2:5).
*The picture that accompanies this blog is called “Festival of Lights”. As with all great pieces of art, there is a story behind it. If you are interested in learning more about the painting and artist’s thoughts watch this video.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid . . . “ (Isaiah 40:1-2a NRSV)
This week the United States will surpass 300,000 deaths due to the Covid-19 virus. That is equivalent to a pretty good sized city. Pittsburgh was given as an example on one news report I heard today. I’ve been to Pittsburgh. Went there on a Sabbatical trip a few years ago to visit a couple of churches. I took time to walk around down town, through the farmer’s market and revitalized warehouse district. I went down to the waterfront and spent some time where the three rivers meet at Point State Park. I saw a lot of people that day, out enjoying their city – individuals and couples and families. It would be hard to imagine that vibrant city suddenly empty of it’s population. Yet, that’s the number of lives lost so far in 2020 to the coronavirus in the United States.
Sure, 300K out of the roughly 328 million USA residents may not register much of an impact percentage wise, but it does exceed the number of United States combat deaths during World War II. Over the past few days the daily death toll has risen to exceed the number killed in the attacks of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. Perhaps you’ve known someone who lost their life? Perhaps you know someone who is fighting for their life? Maybe you are among those who work on the front lines of healthcare trying to preserve lives, or – sadly – representing humanity as lives slip away. Thank you.
Empathy is the ability to express concern because of a similar lived experience. Those who’ve lost loved ones bring empathy to their comforting efforts with others. Sympathy is the capacity to understand that someone is hurting or suffering. As we pass this milestone in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, our neighbors and fellow citizens who have suffered the direct loss of a loved one this year deserve our sympathy, at the least, and our empathy if we are able to share it. 300,000 holiday celebrations across this land will be missing someone. 300,000 households, families, or sets of friends will remember who should be with them, but isn’t.
No, it’s not the same as losing the population of a good sized city all at once. The pain isn’t that geographically concentrated. It’s more diffuse, easier to avoid noticing – especially if you’ve escaped direct impact. But it is still painful, and very real, and needs to be acknowledged.
The prophet Isaiah’s words, quoted atop this post, were shared to a people who faced the horrors of exile. Amidst that tragic event in the nation’s history, God sent a word, but not to spare the nation from what was happening. They still had to endure the exile and go through its suffering and loss. But God, through the prophet, let them know they were not alone. God brought a word of comfort to their grief and loss. It seems the least we can do, in God’s name, for those who suffer now.
2020 has been a year of plans made, plans re-made, plans announced, plans adjusted, plans cancelled, and plans repurposed. Most all of this has been due to the Coronavirus and it’s ebbs and flows, spikes and surges. Businesses, schools, families and congregations have had to adjust their plans accordingly. Just when we think we’ve arrived at a plan that will work, some adjustment is required in response to the ever changing situations driven, writ large, by the virus.
This has caused me to think about God’s plans – or, namely God’s plan – announced and reviewed during Advent. We often turn to the prophets during this time of year, most especially Isaiah, to remember how God announced the plan of the Messiah. Texts such as Isaiah 7:10-17 (v.14 says, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel) or 9:2-7 (v.6 says For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) offer snippets of the plan. The plan is further announced in Isaiah 61, a passage Jesus quotes for his first sermon in Luke 4:18ff: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news. . .
When we consider the full story of the Bible, we come to view God’s plan not so much as an unaltered script unrolled at creation, but a plan that has been edited and revised, always with the purposes of God’s love and justice in mind. Consider that on the seventh day, God rested having pronounced the creation very good. Yet shortly thereafter humankind yields to sin and what was perfect is marred. Does God give up on the plan? Hardly! God sets about redeeming and restoring creation, including the redemption of the crown jewel of that creation – humankind.
The plan is altered, revisited, and unfolds in a sequence of narratives from the do-over of the flood and covenant made with Noah, to the covenant with Abraham (a redemption covenant through which all persons shall be blessed), to the covenant with Moses, then David (who will have an heir that reigns and rules forever). The plan is nuanced and flexed to include such unlikely persons as Rahab and Ruth. It overcomes the fickle and imperfect lives of David and Solomon, incorporates the humble lives of Mary and Joseph; yet all along the Lord works the plan. Throughout it is the same plan, just altered and revised so as to account for the unpredictability of free choice, and the ever present love of the Creator who designed it in the beginning.
The plan comes into a greater focus at Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus, though the Christ is present and foreshadowed in many prior ways. It’s in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection that the plan follows its course toward creation’s restoration. And one day this plan will come to a perfect conclusion, upon the return of King Jesus, as a new heaven and new earth are revealed.
We revisit and rehearse this plan during Advent, and throughout the Church Year. Why? All for the purpose of finding ourselves in it, I suppose. We play a small part, though I suspect the Lord would say there are no small parts. As the object of God’s love and joy with creation, we are part of that which was first pronounced “good” so long ago. It’s in restoration of that “goodness” that this plan has continued to be followed and fulfilled. Sometimes plans are worth revision. Despite the throw away tendencies of our own time, some plans are just too important to abandon. Aren’t you glad?
Isaiah 9:1-3 is a familiar text for this season of Advent. I bet you’ll know it when you see and hear it:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
Those are the most quoted words of the reading, and likely have a familiar ring to them. But did you ever notice how Isaiah 9 begins? It doesn’t begin with “light” but with “gloom”. But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
So there it is. The people have been living in gloom. Rather like this late November gloomy day outside my window here in the Midwest. Only for the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, who had frequently been under threat and occupation of Assyria, gloom was a too well-known companion, having little to do with the weather.
I am among those who find their mood affected by seasonal darkness brought on by winter. Don’t let anyone tell you that SAD (seasonal affective disorder) isn’t real. I know it is. My sleep patterns change as the days shorten. When the sun sets just after 5 p.m. I’m ready to draw the drapes and call it a day. Tack together gloomy weather day after gloomy grey weather day and I will shout “hallelujah” when the sun decides to finally peak forth! And that’s just weather complaining I’m spewing out!
What about those who for whom 2020 has been day after day of isolation, loneliness and loss? I know some for whom this is true. They are afraid to leave home, be in public, or share with extended family. They’ve just come through a different kind of Thanksgiving and they are afraid Christmas will only be more of the same. There is a weightiness, a gloominess to this reality for so many this year. Oppression doesn’t only come from an enemy army’s occupation, or the winter blues, it is also the product of a highly contagious and rather unpredictable virus that has people holed up in the seclusion of waiting it out. Sadly, it’s also come in the judgment of others who have not been as impacted by the virus and who may look with scorn on the precautions the more vulnerable take, or minimize the loss that has been known. Can light come into this gloom? Can hope shine forth amidst this deep darkness?
I must say I’m hearing the hope of Isaiah’s promise in new ways this year. The prophet said of those who had lived in “deep darkness” that a light had shined – the light of hope found in the promise for what is to come. No, not a vaccine or herd immunity, or the delusion that the virus will disappear; the hope that is ours and the light that is ours is found in Christ Jesus.
Advent is a time of waiting for the coming of Christ. We wait for the light to shine. We wait for the reassurance of hope. We wait for the promise of deliverance for all things that may oppress us.
Last Sunday as I was sitting in the pew of our sanctuary at First Baptist Columbus, waiting for it to be time to share our online worship service – just the few of us again with the cameras – I watched as the light of that morning’s sunlight began to spread across the pierced wall of the chancel. It began from the east and worked it’s way toward the west – overcoming the shadows of the openings in the brick, illuminating the cross and seasonal decorations below, until all the wall was awash in light. That was my sermon on Sunday, and my worship experience, and my reminder of the truth from Isaiah 9 – on those who lived in deep darkness, a light has shined!
May it be so for you this season as you spend time with the One who is the Light of the World.