I rise before dawn to light the first advent candle of the season. There is a proper way to light advent candles, I’m told – one at a time, week by week until all four blazing tapers are joined by the center candle on Christmas Day, completing the Advent journey.
My way is a bit more chaotic but, for me, just as meaningful. As I light all four candles every morning, I pray for each of my grown children and their children. Next, I pray for all the names written on my kitchen chalkboard – family members and friends on several continents, as well as people I have never met. I pray for those who grieve, those who suffer, those who struggle and hope. Finally, I light the Christ candle, which this year is a pillar candle wrapped in white birch bark, and I begin to weep.
I’ve always been a weeper; I incline toward lament, but I find that I cry even more easily and more often these days. The church bells ringing from St Mary’s, once mere background noise, now stop me cold in the parking lot of the local Drug Mart. As masked customers, mostly elderly, trudge slowly past me, the bells play an old familiar chorus, reducing me to a sobbing heap.
Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way,
Thou art the potter; I am the clay
Mold me and make me after Thy will
While I am waiting, yielded, and still.
Waiting. This whole year has been about waiting. Waiting for schools and businesses to re-open, waiting for stimulus checks, waiting for unemployment benefits, waiting in food bank lines, waiting for quarantine to end, waiting for results – test results, election results, vaccine results. We’re not good at waiting. And yet, the Advent season is just that – a season of waiting, stripped bare, and trembling in the dark, for Jesus to come to our door.
In his book, God in a Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
Jesus stands at the door knocking. In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us. Do you want to close the door or open it?
In this challenging season, while the doors of our homes stay closed, may our hearts be flung wide open. While our cloth-masked faces protect others, may we learn to drop the emotional masks we hide behind to protect ourselves. While the arms that ache to hug those we love remain empty, may the love in our hearts expand to embrace those so different from ourselves. And may we wait, fully present, in stillness, and in hope for the Light to appear.
As I extinguish the birch candle on this first Sunday of Advent, I whisper the simple prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, love of my life. Come.