By Paul Baxley
This past Sunday we began the Season of Advent. So much was different this year. Because of the surging coronavirus pandemic, we did not begin Advent with large congregations in sanctuaries. Many more worshipped online than in person.
We could not sing the carols of Advent with the same energy, instead the sounds were much more subdued. Choirs were replaced by instrumentalists, or perhaps by small singing ensembles spread across almost empty sanctuaries.
This Advent did not just begin in a world overcome by a surging public health crisis. It also began in the United States as our public life is increasingly consumed by the bitter and devastating pandemic of partisanship that is tearing at the fabric of our common life. And, it comes at the end of a calendar year where we saw unmistakable evidence of the ongoing impacts of a pandemic of racial injustice that has persisted in this part of the world for more than 400 years. Beyond all this, there are the more ordinary struggles and challenges that come in the course of our daily lives; other illnesses, fears, and disappointments.
Yet the first Sunday of Advent came.
For all that was different, even in the midst of difficult and debilitating pandemics, some things were the same. For example, those of us who light candles of Advent in our worship took the daring and remarkable step of beginning the Advent season by lighting a candle of hope.
The first light that pierces the darkness during this, or any Advent, is the flame of hope. As I watched a single candle take fire as a proclamation of hope, I was struck by the recognition: if there was ever a season in which people of faith should bear witness to hope, it is this one. If there was ever a moment when we needed to be held in a relentless hope, it is now. In lighting that single candle, we added our voices to the witness of John’s Gospel: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
Lighting a candle of hope is substantially different from being optimistic. That is a good thing, because these days hold little reason for optimism. Optimism is rooted in positive circumstances around us, or in the conditions we can create at the intersection of skill, intellect and fortune. Optimism can vanish as quickly as it rises. Advent—this Advent or any Advent—does not begin with a witness to optimism, because we do not need God to be present for there to be optimism. But hope rises, flourishes and perseveres because of the presence and provision of a God who makes a way where there is otherwise no way. Paul presents the source of our Advent hope in his words to the Corinthians:
You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful….
In this season of waiting, we are not alone, because the coming Christ is already present among us, strengthening us, entirely faithful, always present. We are not left to ourselves to face the challenges and the terrible struggles of these days, but instead God is meeting us in Jesus, renewing us, remaking us, restoring us.
When the child born in Bethlehem was in the final hours of his life, he spoke to his terrified disciples and said: “In the world you face tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33) Because Christ is present within us, around us, and among us, because we are not alone, we can hold fast to hope in dark and unusual days. The Christ whose coming we await not only came to this world, he faced its very worst and overcame. Even now, he is with us as refuge, strength and deliverer. The hope unleashed in Advent is not something we create; it is a gift of grace we receive and then share with others.
We lit a candle of hope the first Sunday in Advent. Then in congregations across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, preachers stood to preach.
I cannot remember any Advent season when the weight has been any heavier than this one, but for the same reason, I cannot imagine any time when the message of Advent is more necessary than it is right now. I’m praying for my colleagues who preach each week during this Advent surrounded by multiple pandemics. I’m praying that they will have the words, the grace, the courage and the perseverance to use their words to light a candle of hope in this particularly difficult time.
I’m praying that their words will summon us away from an optimism rooted in human possibility and instead to a hope that is only possible because God came near in Jesus. I’m praying that in their words and in their tones, people starving for good news will discover the truth that God has not abandoned us to the struggles of the present darkness, but that God has come near and desires to make right all that is broken around us, and what’s more, that God desires to use us in that holy work.
I’m praying that as the Holy Spirit speaks through, in, and around the words that are preached, we will be drawn to a hope so substantial that we are not only receive it but come to reflect it, until lighting a candle of hope is not only an act of worship but a way of witness and a path toward the transformation of our communities and the world.