We are halfway through the last month of this long and very strange year. It’s time for me to order a new month-at-a-glance calendar with room for notes in which I have recorded for decades my activities and important things that I have learned. Last year when the traditional black, my favorite choice, was unavailable, I had to settle for the sparkly, silver-leather covered calendar that will be added to my stack representing years of ministry, and I am certain it will stand out in a myriad of ways for the rest of my life.
When I first opened the pages, I felt such hope and promise for 2020, the beginning of a new decade. I believed that God would lead in exciting and fresh ways. Never did I imagine that we would experience God’s provision and faithfulness in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic. I could not have projected that after a few weeks our church would never gather in a building together in one place, that we wouldn’t be able to touch or hug, or share a meal or hear the beautiful voices lifted in shared worship, and that something called “Zoom” would be our new normal. And I certainly wouldn’t have seen that, in spite of the distancing and physical separation for the remainder of the year that God would bring our hearts closer together than ever, that we would expand our circle of family and friends, and that we would reunite with others, and that we would experience the power of prayer in such profound ways.
We have lit the first three candles of our Advent wreath: the candles of hope, peace, and joy as we carry on this ritual that began centuries ago. I know of more people than ever this year who are gathering candles and starting a new family tradition. No matter how make-shift or humble our Advent wreaths are, or even if it is in our minds’ eye, the wreath which has no beginning and no end assures us of the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life we find in Christ. The light in our candles reminds us who Jesus is. In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5).
According to U.S. Center for Disease Control reports, the United States has the most confirmed COVID infected people, and this country is at the top of the graph of number of deaths. The pandemic is hitting home; we are hearing more and more of sick people and ones that we know being impacted. Mobile morgues are now used in cities in the state of Ohio.
In this darkest time of the year when morning’s first light comes so late and the sun falls behind the horizon in afternoons, we long for Christmas’ light. We need candles of hope and the promise of peace that passes understanding and the source of deep joy. We are grateful for the anticipation of the celebration of the coming of the light of the world. The one whose birth was announced by angelic harbingers in a dark sky over a seemingly inconsequential town in Palestine with the words, “Peace on earth!”
In some traditions, the second week Advent candle which we call peace is called the “Bethlehem candle.” It is hard to believe that just a little over a year ago before COVID was a thing and the pandemic never entered conversations, a small group from this area worshipped in a trilingual service at Christmas Lutheran Church just off of Manger Square in Bethlehem. After the service and a quick visit to the crowded Church of the Nativity and a traditional Palestinian lunch, we loaded our big van to travel a short distance to the Shepherds’ Field located behind the Bethlehem YMCA.
We parked and then followed our guide down a meandering path around rocks and scrubby trees that few tourists traverse to the small opening of a cave overlooking the rocky hillside that looked impossible to sustain any flocks. It was that location that the local descendants of the shepherds identified as the place where generations before their sheep-tending relatives related how suddenly a dark night was interrupted by bright lights and angels declared the end to fear and announced that the promised Prince of Peace had been born in their neighborhood, the place where we had just walked.
We can be confident that the most important thing in human history happened that night long ago, and it is worth celebrating in every way possible, even if we are physically isolated and our gatherings are from a distance. This Advent, we are learning so much about how God takes us by surprise and uses the unexpected to accomplish his plan and purpose. In a time of unprecedented stress and anxiety, confusion and disorientation, we need the hope that God is still breaking into our dark places. What happened in Bethlehem certainly did not stay in Bethlehem!
Let us hear the words of assurance from heaven that echo throughout time that we do not need to be afraid! This dark year may we find the good news in the midst of all we are experiencing. We light the Advent candles of hope, and then peace which is our own Bethlehem candle, and add the light of joy and look forward celebrating the coming of the one who is love incarnate. The Savior child born so many years ago in a dimly lit little town in Palestine will be born over and over again in each one of our humble hearts.