Several years ago, a friend called me late one evening while I was in bed reading. I scooted out from under the covers, sat up, and said hello. After several seconds of silence, my friend told me with tears choking her voice that she had just received the news that multiple family members were seriously sick, and likely to die. She asked if I had a Bible handy, and if I could read a particular chapter.
As a millennial, I did not have a physical Bible nearby, but I opened it on my phone to the chapter she wanted and began to read.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
“Can you read just that verse again?,” she asked.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
We read this verse, over and over again, crying, as it became our prayer. Sitting on the blanket at the edge of my bed, our words took on a life of their own, a powerful bond between us.
Today, we light three candles on our Advent wreaths. That third candle is often called the candle of joy. And for the past week, I have wrestled every day with how I might light this candle with integrity. This is not a season of easy joy.
In a retreat I co-lead a few years ago, we began the day by lighting candles to welcome in both our full selves and the great cloud of witnesses. We went around a circle, carefully naming our identities, our needs, and those close to us who had died who we wanted to watch over the gathering. With each naming, we lit a candle and placed it in a bowl of sand. Until we got to one older leader, whose wife had died less than two years previously. He picked up a candle, held it lightly in his hand, and then placed it, unlit, in the sand.
“This is for my wife.” He said. “And I will leave it unlit, because I do not fear the darkness.”
What if this candle-lighting is not a celebration of light conquering darkness, but an embrace of the deep rhythms of God’s creation? As the nights grow longer and the days grow shorter, we are called to stay home, to find rest in the dark, like so many animals and plants in our ecosystem do. Forester Peter Wohlleben writes that deciduous trees lose their leaves and hibernate in winter because they are literally exhausted from the work of growing all through the spring and summer. Without the signal of longer nights and colder temperatures to tell them to drop their leaves and rest, they will work themselves to death.
We can light candles not to cast out the darkness but to welcome it in, to turn our attention to it, like in Zora Neale-Hurston’s famous lines:
“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in [God’s] hands . . . They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
The Reverend Kelle Brown writes that this attention to darkness is an invitation:
May we refuse to rush through this time, filling our lives with distraction and artificial light—or we can use these long, dark nights to heal, to dream, to love, to imagine, to carve and create ourselves into a better likeness of who God created us to be. This Advent season, be reconciled to the gift of the luminous darkness.
We light this candle not to cast out sorrow with joy, but rather to welcome in our sorrow with joy. We hold dark and light as the rhythm of the universe. And the same with joy and sorrow. Emptiness and fullness. Wounding and healing. Grief and praise. Each sacred, each inseparable. Together they are the power of what Christian tradition calls atonement, at-one-ment, oneness with the Divine.
All my life, I have wrestled with a fear of abandonment. I return to it in dreams: The image of the small child within me, left behind. When I am in conflict or processing hard emotions, my body is constantly attuned to this possibility, always watching the exits. Like many people raised to be men, I have learned to meet this fear with overwork and emotional invulnerability. If I am useful, needed, and seen as strong I will not be left behind. It doesn’t matter how many people I surround myself with, the fear is still there. My partner, my dear friends, and anyone who has been in a church committee meeting with me can attest to this.
This fear isn’t helpful in a pastor, and let me tell you it doesn’t get better in a pandemic. Early in the pandemic, I logged onto Zoom church on Sunday mornings and wondered if anyone would join me. None of the signals for determining whether I was useful and needed were working. I felt deeply alone, uncertain, abandoned.
And so, with deep reluctance, I spent time grieving. I cried. And sitting in this aloneness, I began to notice things: The small miracle that occurs every Sunday morning when we open the waiting room and the faces and living rooms and basement ceilings of our community come streaming in. The possibility of heart connection even on zoom. The gratitude that washes over me in moments of pure silence. And in November, I stood in the empty sanctuary to lead the All Souls Service, I wept at your absence, and I felt my heart join with all of you in prayer. Little by little, I am learning that even in our total aloneness we are not alone. I have far to go in this journey, but every morning when I take a minute to light my Advent candles and pray, I am grateful for the lessons learned in healing the fear.
In the past few weeks, I have sat with these lines from the poet David Whyte, which we included in our Advent prayer booklet, and which I have sent to many people in the past few weeks:
The dark will be your home
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Maybe this is not the candle of joy. One Christian tradition ties the candles with different voices, this week’s being John the Baptist’s prophetic calling in the wilderness. Some of our Orthodox siblings light candles for six weeks, and this week’s candle is for repentance. Still another tradition lights a candle this week for the shepherds, the farm workers who were terrified a witness to the presence of the Divine. At the start of this season, Cate suggested that each week we name a source of water. This would be the candle of Springs.
Maybe this is not the candle of joy. Maybe: This is the candle to welcome in sorrow. This is the candle of God at work in you. This is the candle that knows that your wounds are actually your source of strength. This is the candle that welcomes a tiny baby into a world of suffering, an Incarnation of the Divine bringing the gift of luminous darkness. This is the candle that knows that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.