“It’s nice when you see lights in the dark,” said Father Merrow in this Sunday’s sermon, as he discussed the secular tradition of bestowing houses with decorations and twinkling garlands. And we may have neighbors like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, neighbors who are more interested in decking the halls than sitting in a pew. But as Father Merrow moved on to say, we Christians must go further and share “the light that has overcome the darkness, once and for all time.”
Like most of us, I was brought up to believe that Easter Sunday was the most important day in the Church year, the day of Christ’s Resurrection. All of that is true. However, as an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate Advent. While I still know that Easter is the goal, I also know it’s a goal that could not be accomplished without the dark, quiet days of Advent.
Advent contemplation is, in part, about anticipation. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we sing—it’s one of my favorite hymns for its somber poetry and sinuous melody. But Advent isn’t just about waiting. It’s also about preparing. “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares/And their spears into pruning hooks” reads part of Isaiah’s lesson this past Sunday. If we want to overcome darkness, we have to repurpose tools of war into those of peace.
Since we are human, we have to do this preparation, again and again, year after year.
Most of us turn our minds in Advent to freezing cookie dough, finding the gift tags, and making sure we have enough plates for a big family dinner—all of those tasks that must be done, again and again, year after year. Whether we approach those tasks with frustration or joy is up to us as individuals.
But repurposing tools of war into tools of peace means thinking about other kinds of preparations, the kind that just might make a difference for someone. What do I mean by that? I mean the kind of difference that creates change in the social-justice continuum Father Merrow emphasized in his sermon this week. For example, instead of creating elaborately themed wrapping for your own family’s gifts, you might volunteer to wrap children’s gifts at a family shelter. Rather than spending hours in your kitchen, you could serve Christmas dinner to the homeless. And so on. (I promise not to make a service reflection into a how-to list!)
The point is, repurposing requires action. Wait, didn’t I just say Advent is the season of quiet and contemplation? Absolutely. Perhaps you will choose to spend the four weeks leading up to Christmas in stillness. As you pray, you might ask for guidance into how you can use your resources in the secular New Year. The ways to shine a light into the world are many. The most important thing is to shine a light.
Social justice will always, “once and for all time,” require sacrifice. Any light, be it an oil lamp, a string of electric twinklers, or a LED bulb, takes energy. Prayer takes energy, and so does contemplative planning. Considering how we can each spend our time is important, but Father Merrow reminds us that we must make that consideration as Christians. Our lights must shine with compassion as well as energy; our lights must be filled with love as well as holiday merriment.
Of course, substitute “lives” for “lights,” because that’s really what we’re talking about: Advent is a time for us to re-energize our lives as Christians, to remember that each week brings us closer to a symbolic rebirth, a time in which we can re-dedicate our innermost selves to God’s glory. That’s the light to show us the way to “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” That’s the light where “he may teach us his ways/And we may walk in his paths.” That’s the light to ensure “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
It’s nice to see lights in the dark. It’s much nicer to see love brought to life as we try to do as Christ taught us, in service to those less fortunate. The amazing thing is that Christ never said we can’t have both, that we can’t have our Christmas lights and do good, too. The important thing to remember in this and every Advent season is that the latter takes precedence.