My spell checker is broken and this post is rife with spelling and grammtical errors that I will come back and fix when it goes back on again–sorry!
If you read me regularly, you might have noticed that I’ve been relatively silent about the Israeli/Palestinian “Conflict”* lately. It’s not that I haven’t been following the news–I have to varying degrees over the last two months. No, it is for the simple reason that to sleep at night, and then to get through the day without descending into madness, I have to keep the events as they unfold very much at the periphery and not dwell on what I do see for very long. I have to keep moving, lest I be swept away on a tide of anxiety and horror. It was a relief almost, this past week, to be able to be angry about the congressional testimony of those midwit presidents of Harvard, UPenn, and MIT as a sort of distraction from the more essential and moving testimonies of those few released hostages finally beginning to tell what was done to them. Instead of writing about any of it, I’ve been trying to pray, because, like everyone else, it’s all I’ve got.
I was horrified, then, on Friday, to stumble across an instance of such gross clerical mid-wittery as ought not be allowed. In an effort to achieve solidarity and feelings of doing more than nothing, the very thing that could be a useful activity–the ordinary practice of the Christian faith–is being weaponized as a sort of emotional totem, twisted in upon itself, defanged of all it’s power and offered, instead, as hopeless but nevertheless warm sentimentality.
Here is the thing. It is a short clip created by Christian Aid, an English organization, who put out this statement about what’s been going on. A quick scroll around their website let me know I don’t agree with them on very much, politically, but they do fly under the name “Christian” so I’m going to take what they say in this video with all due seriousness. It is of a clerical person very close to the camera, explaining what Christian Aid is inviting everyone to do across England this very day:
Our Christian collegues in Bethlehem tell us that this Advent and Christmas the lights that normally adorn the birthplace of Jesus will remain unlit in memory of those who have been killed in this current conflict. This advent, we are asking churches across the United Kingdom to do something out of the ordinary and not light the Advent candle on the second Sunday in Advent, December 10th, and on subsequent Sundays. This unlit candle will serve as a constant reminder that we stand in solidarity with all who suffer in the Holy Land.
There’s a sort of break after this astonishing speech, the word “Prayer” glides across the screen, and then the clerical person comes back and reads this:
Incarnate God, as we prepare ourselves for the birth of the Prince of Peace, we hear that the festive lights that normlly shine bright in Bethlehem will not be lit this year in memory of those who have been killed in recent violence. To stand alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ, and with all who mourn this Christmas, we will leave our second Advent candle unlit during Advent and Christmas. And pray for justice, that peace may flourish in the land that we call Holy. Amen
I imagine that you are clever enough to immediately spot the fly caught in the wax, but perhaps you are tired and overwhelmed, like me, and are only left with an icky feeling of malaise. I mean, isn’t solidarity a good thing? And isn’t doing something public and symbolic an essential way to communicate love and a commitment to do what you can in a tortuously difficult time? If the Christians in Bethlehem, in order to mark the darkest and most disastrous time of violence in a long while, have decided not to light the lights of the feast to remember those who have died, why shouldn’t people in England and across the world do the same? And, having said as much, now, if you do light them, aren’t you then a person who, for example, prefers your own ideological inclinations over the real suffering and grief of real people? Sure, go ahead and light your Advent candle today, but just know what you’re saying when you do.
Of course, the trouble is that the person who decides not to light the candle during the season of Advent out of solidarity with the dead and suffering, says something with a bullhorn that no Christian should ever say. For Anglicans, and Christians, around the world–and we needn’t get into fights about the relative novelty of Advent candles as a liturgical practice in an ancient season–the lighting of the candles is not a “festal” act. Advent is not Christmas. Advent is the time of preparation for the Feast, the birth of the Lord Jesus, the Son of God who came into the world to rescue and redeem sinners. The texts through this somber and preparatory season are about how the people who walked in Great Darkness have seen, you might remember, a Great Light. The people, in this case, are all of us. Every single person who has ever lived on earth is a person who walked in great and terrible and overwhelming darkness.
Sometimes, truth be told, the darkness is kind of comfortable, easily endured with half lights by feeling around for familiar comforts and existential balm. But sometimes the darkness is so great that it can be felt. I think we are in such a time, where the darkness appears to be overpowering, the shadow has lengthened and stretched as more and more people stumble and grope for themselves.
But, says the prophet, on those people walking in darkness, a Light shined. Unless you are very very ignorant or wicked, you should be able to acknowledge that the Light being talked about is Jesus. Jesus is the Light who comes into the world. And so, in a meager and somber way of trying to relay this astonishing news to people staggering into various sanctuaries around the world for a hundred or more years, lots of pastors and nice people have arranged the four candles with a fifth in the center, and each week leading up to Christmas–the Feast when we celebrate that the Light came into the world–one candle each week is lit and some nice hymns about God coming to be with us are sung and people go about their lives.
The catechetical possibilities of lighting the four candles leading up to Christmas should be obvious. God shone his light, through the scriptures, long before his actual coming, preparing the way with lesser light until the coming of the Great Light. The practice seems so faint and small–just one candle each week until there are four–and yet the Light of Christ is inexorable. Christmas will come in the same way that Jesus will come again on the Last Day. The Light is so beautiful, illuminating as it does the Way, the Truth, the very Life that we so desperately need and desire. The four lights of Advent are suddenly recapitulated at Easter, when the Paschal candle, held aloft, is brought into the Church and lit and the relief, the denuoument of the whole story is celebrated in fearsome joy. There are so many ways to talk about the Light of Jesus, to think about it, to hold it in your hand while you sing Silent Night, to watch the lights at Tennebrae go out, to point it out to children and ponder it in your own heart.
So anyway, I think you might be able to see the chatecetical disaster of deciding not to light the candles, especially in a time of such pressing and astonishing darkness. At the very least you are saying that the lights of Advent are about us and our capacity to bring peace and then to celebrate it. At the most you are saying that Jesus is not the Light and has no power to conquor the darkness. Even to write such a thing makes me feel sicker than ever.
Especially, I might add, when you are certain to run across a text like the one appointed for this morning:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
The Church–for heaven’s sake, why does this have to be said on a blog somewhere in North America–has one job, to cry to everyone in grief and pain and ruin Look up! Don’t look at the darkness, look at the Light! The true darkness that threatens to destroy you has been trampled down. There is a way out of the darkness. You don’t have to go feeling along the wall, hoping not to meet a serpant, to die and be alone forever.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Of course, sitting there looking at two meager candles, the last thing you might be inclined to mouth is “glory.” But it will be revealed. Everyone will see it. Not yet, of course. That’s why it is so wretched to say that the season of Advent is about “preparing ourselves for the birth of the Prince of Peace.” He has already come. The season is a brief moment to prepare ourselves in however small away for his coming again.
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isn’t it strange how the flame flickers, is so small, is so easily extinguished? I suppose you might confuse that slender candle with a person, frail, barely able to hold it’s own against the darkness. You will die, you will fall into the ground. But God wasn’t content with such a defeat. That’s why he came. That’s why he took our frail flesh and redeemed it, bought it back so that it needn’t wither and fade. That’s why he is the Light–not a light–the one that illumines the cosmos and the interior of every human heart.
Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
If you want–and I think it would certainly be appropriate in the season–to feel and express solidarity with anyone crushed by the ravages of war, sin, death, illness, or any other problem, don’t be suckered into fake expressions of “hope.” Say, to anyone who will listen, “Behold, your God.” Tell everyone you can about the true remedy, the reason we do not grieve as those who have no hope–the Light of the World, Jesus the Lord.
*”Conflict” must be one of the most usefully bland terms of our time.
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