For most of my life, the approach to Christmas was clear. My childhood was shaped by the weather getting cold, cold, colder, and the snow starting to pile up. School recesses ended with snowpants and boots leaving piles of water that would soak your socks if you didn’t watch where you stepped. My Christmases were often marked by filtered sunlight reflecting off the drifted snow.
In Oregon, fall means a movement into darkness: gloom and wetness. The brilliant colors of the fall quickly become a huddled soggy mess under your feet, and slowly and damply Christmas arrives. It’s grey and a bit chilly, but the clouds offset the greenery of wreaths, Christmas trees, and the natural evergreen foliage outside. The whole world seems to smell like pine.
Here in Texas, I feel like it is mid-October forever. Before moving here, I’d never known the sun could shine so brightly so often. Most December days are cold enough to wear a scarf, but the afternoon turns 70 degrees and it is October again. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sunshine and I adore the mild temperatures. It’s just that Texas is so very fluorescent, very buoyant, very bright.
It doesn’t help that advent always conflicts with the end of the semester. I’m always thinking about seminar papers and grading when I’m supposed to be considering peace and love. Then I get on a plane and fly to an icy cold place where they measure temperature in Celsius and everyone is very sorry that it’s so cold for me. It is suddenly Christmas.
I never have time to prepare. It’s never dark enough to prepare.
It’s advent, so I went to church yesterday, and the pastor spoke about darkness. Not grey skies, but rather the darkness of life’s pain. She reminded us that life even in bright Texas is dark sometimes, but some lights can only be seen in the dark. My church back home talked about justice and Ferguson and advent, those brave Friends of mine. It’s dark so many places right now. Hope seems harder and harder to find.
The world is dark. But like it has been for hundreds of years, the first Sunday of advent is about hope.
This Sunday two years ago changed my life in a subtle yet profound way. I spoke in front of a community that I loved deeply. I told them about my anxieties about hope: the fluttering in my soul, that basketball arched toward the basket, that anchor. Looking back, I question the number of metaphors I used, but I will never forget the sense of being heard and loved.
I still struggle with hope, two years later. Hope still reeks of anxiety and uncertainty. It’s still that thing with feathers that tickles me. It’s still that breath caught in my throat as I pray that basketball into the basket. And I still long for it to be the thing that anchors me, intercedes for me behind the veil.
Hardest for me is the constant realization that hope costs. Hope can be painful. Maybe that’s the beauty of it.
To be hopeful in a dark world is to light a flickering, fragile candle. It’s to be seen and to be vulnerable. Or to be asked to help.
To light the way for others who cannot for the life of them find the candles that they dropped. For those who feel unmoored, who feel like they’re drifting.
We use our candles to help them find theirs under the waves, in the darkness.
I made an advent wreath yesterday. Crafting is not my gifting, but I wrapped the wreath in ribbon and put it on my shelf. The candles are tall and straight. The rest of my day was silence in piles of papers and books and dishes, but I kept glimpsing those candles. Finally, I gave in. I put away the never-ending work so I could think and write about hope. This is important work too.
This morning, when it was still dark, I went into my living room in my pajamas. I didn’t turn on any lights but the Christmas tree. I lit the “hope” candle, and sat crossed-legged in front of it. I watched it burn for a little bit, and thought about who I want to be when Christmas arrives. How I want to be different, changed.
Because it’s advent and Jesus is coming, and I need to get ready. I need to approach the darkness in order to see the light. I need to feel those feathers in my soul, and pray them into concrete that settles me into a hope of things beyond—an intercessory hope that goes before me, approaches God on my behalf and says, please.
Because that’s what advent is. That’s what hope is. That’s what darkness is.
Waiting, hoping, for the light.