How many of us lost power this week? We lost ours on Thursday night around 6:30 p.m. We lit our candles, got out our Nooks and settled in for a few hours of candlelit leisure. But because the wind was so strong, and we know what falling trees can do, we decided to sleep in the living room. Adventure sleeping! We have a little lantern that holds a tea light. We left that burning, because it was safe and contained, as we extinguished all the candles and tried to find a comfortable place to sleep. The lantern has a circle of cut out stars in the lid to allow oxygen to feed the little flame. Not until all the other flames were extinguished, did we noticed the circle of stars, each one the size of your hand, glowing on the ceiling. Starlight on our ceiling from one tiny candle!
I don’t have to tell you that sometime during the night the adventure wore off. We had appointments in Seattle in the morning. We hoped the lights would come back on by morning, but just in case, we made contingency plans. Fortunately the lights were back on when we woke up. What a gift to be able to see clearly again!
Now I know that all metaphors break down, but one of the central themes of the Advent season is waiting in the dark for the light to appear. Yes, the days are getting shorter, almost oppressively so at this time of year. But there is also the hope that we will acknowledge the darkness and pain in our world, and recognize God’s light and a path to peace in the life of Jesus. The birth narrative that we read this morning admits that the birth of Jesus did not create peace. In fact it ignited Herod’s fear that his position as Rome’s puppet king was precarious. We know from historical accounts that “he assassinated anyone he considered a threat—including his wife and two of his own sons.” So whether the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem can be authenticated historically, it is true to Herod’s character and actions. Herod gripped power with bloody hands and no conscience. We hear this horrific story and are appalled, as I think Matthew’s gospel intends us to be. We will never know whether Matthew reported a true incident in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, or whether he artfully recreated the legendary storied of the Hebrew people’s first liberator, Moses, to frame the life of promised Messiah. Matthew’s story involves the holy family in the all too frequent modern exodus of refugees fleeing from unholy terror.
There has to be another way or we are doomed as a species to continue the awful atrocities of our history, either as victims or perpetrators, and sometimes both. We live in a world where we have witnessed more atrocities than we can bear, and perhaps that has made us numb. How is it that we can hear the awful news of genocides, we see photos of children who are the innocent victims of bombs; watch wars, riots, and horrific brutality on TV and somehow go back to eating dinner.
When I watch the news, I am disturbed and angry, but I also feel helpless because the darkness is so terribly dark and the pain seemingly unbearable—and, I am ashamed to say, it has not touched my life. innocents. But Matthew is also telling us that violence bookends the life of Jesus. Violence is the raging dark that threatens to overwhelm the world.
I know you didn’t come to church this morning for a dose of despair. The lights going out this week reminds me of why we need this dousing with cold water in Advent. It’s just too easy to sentimentalize Christmas and forget that it is about light shining in darkness. John’s gospel proclaims, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
We could go to bed Thursday night with stars on our ceiling after sitting in the dark. But as the flame flickered out and time passed, we made alternate plans for living without our lights, hot water, and heat for home and food. It was an “Oh well” moment for me. It’s dark, I can’t do much about it, so I’d better prepare to live with it. And that’s how we often engage with the pain and violence in the world.
We are invited in the four weeks of Advent to take into our hearts the pain of our world and lift it up in the hope that God will lead us to light. We may need to take our hands away from our ears, uncover our eyes, so that we can hear how deep the pain is, how unrelenting the cries of the poor, the victims of war and racism, those who live in constant fear. We are invited into thorny questions about how power is used and abused, how violence is employed to retain power, and how war kills not only combatants, but innocents. These are difficult questions. And every year we are also invited to recognize in Jesus the vision and heart of God that chooses compassion over power. We are invited to “let our hearts be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” We are invited to moments of wonder and reflection on the Church’s audacious claim that, unlike humans and governments who rule and subjugate by violence, God gifts the world with light and peace through the birth of a child—not only Jesus, but all who would follow him. We could be light for the world. We could be makers of peace. We could be healers of the wounds of at least our small part of the world if we could recognize that violence, fear, and anxiety live within our own hearts.
To find that deep well of compassion we must know that we are victims and we are terrorists. Compassion helps us understand the fears and anxiety that can lead to violence. Compassion draws us toward a desire for economic justice, for racial justice, and for just relations in and among nations. Compassion tells us that every person needs to live peacefully under his or her vine or fig tree, the Biblical vision of agency and well-being. How do we start? By doing one thing, and then the next thing. Where do we start? With what breaks your heart.
One tiny flame threw starlight on our ceiling in spite of the darkness. There is so much darkness in our world. But darkness only exists as the absence of light. Even the smallest light begins to dispel darkness. Christ’s light. Your light. My light. Like the dawn that is almost imperceptible as it begins, the light gathers until we can see clearly. Night will come again, but it will be followed by the dawn. Okay, every metaphor breaks down eventually, so how about a parable from South Africa, retold by Trevor Hudson, in which a wise old spiritual master had a conversation with his disciples:
Once he asked them, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?”
The disciples were quiet for a moment, and then one answered, “When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper.” Another responded, “When we can see an animal, and know that it is a fox and not a wolf.”
“No,” said the old man, “those things will not help us.”
Puzzled, the students asked, “How then can we know?”
The master leaned over and said to them quietly, “We know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister; for otherwise, no matter what time it is, it is still dark.”
We are invited in this season of Advent to reimage Jesus, not as the one time solution, but as an embodied reflection of God’s light that dispels darkness by revealing power secured through violence for the fraud that it is, and to offer ourselves as conduits of that light.
Let us pray:
Guerillas of light?
Awed to Heaven?