December 22, 2014

Spread the Light

We'll return to our series on "What Helps People Sing on Sunday" next week. For now, it's almost Christmas again, and I thought I'd offer some reflections.

As with every family here in America, advent was a chaotic time for me growing up. There were always school productions to be rehearsed, concerts to be performed, presents to be bought. But my favorite part of advent was the tree. As a kid, it was a family affair. Dad and Mom would take my sister and me out to the local tree farm and we’d hunt down a good, solid white spruce, cut it down, and then wrestle it home into our living room. And because the season was as busy as it was, between church and shopping and school events, we almost never got our tree decorated until the week of Christmas, and sometimes even only on Christmas Eve.

There was lots of waiting at Christmas. Busy waiting, but waiting nonetheless.

Later, when I was a boy scout, our troop’s big fundraiser was selling Christmas trees. On one weekend in November, we’d trudge out to one of several tree farms and we’d cut down all sorts of trees - douglass firs, pine, and maybe even some spruce. Then, we’d get five or six volunteers from the national guard to drive out some large cargo trucks and help us get them back to our tree lot on main street, and each would get a tree for their help. And then came the long nights of volunteering in the little trailer on the tree lot. Mom would pack me a thermos of hot chocolate and some snacks, and two or three of us would huddle in the trailer with our dads waiting for customers to come in so we could dazzle them with our knowledge of the trees we were about to sell them.

Mostly, though, there was a lot of waiting.

Oh, everyone wanted a weekend shift - lots of customers kept us busy on Fridays and Saturdays, even on Sundays. And everyone usually GOT a weekend shift, because there were so many people out then that we needed extra help. But the rest of the week, those nights were fairly uneventful, and everyone got at least a few of those. But the unfortunate few, of which I was often a part, would get more than a few night shifts. We’d sit in the trailer on milk crates telling bad jokes and lamenting the cold, wondering when our replacement shift would show up so we could go home and thaw our cold hands and feet and frozen bottoms.

The waiting was busy, but it was still waiting.

And then suddenly it was Christmas and the waiting was over and the lot was closed and there was a tree up in our living room and it was time to decorate. I remember one year, a guy from church, who happened to be the volunteer fire chief of our village in upstate NY, came to my parents and offered to park a firetruck outside our house during the holidays. He was only half joking. My parents politely declined, and, after church, went home and set up our newly-cut White Spruce. My father would grumble at the tree as he wrestled the strands of lights into a very prickly set of strong branches. Then, as she did every year, my mother carefully added candles.

This was my Grandfather's tree last Christmas
It’s an old tradition for the Swiss side of my family, and one of which I’m very fond. Christmas Eve would start at church, of course, but then we’d come home and sit in our living room while mom lit the candles on the tree and then dad turned the switch off for every light in the house - including the tree lights - and we would read the Christmas Story out of Luke by candlelight. On the best Christmases, we travelled to visit my grandparents and our cousins and aunts and uncles. After dinner, we’d move into the living room where the tree was set up, full of old ornaments, each with a story, and of candles, their soft glow reflecting off the bay windows. There, my grandmother would read us the Christmas Story before we’d open presents. Inevitably, my grandfather would tell us stories of doing the same thing when he was a kid in Switzerland, and of even finding creative ways to string candles together and light them in sequence with one match.

For me, advent is a story of generations; each generation slowly, carefully passing the light on to the next. To pass the light of the candles means to pass on hope; hope of salvation, hope of redemption, hope of a Kingdom come to earth. Hope that the waiting will end soon, but with the knowledge that eventually, it will end. God came as one of us, bringing His light into a world that had forgotten they were even waiting, save for a few carefully holding onto a weak, flickering candle. But then the light spread, and has been spreading for centuries. It’s a light of redemption, of restoration, of re-creation. 

Waiting did end. Advent did turn to Christmas. The Kingdom has come, and now, that day will never end! The mission of God is something we can join with confidence because the end has already been won; in the incarnation, Peace became tangible; Joy overflowed; Hope was fulfilled; the light of the world has begun to spread. But it’s an ongoing project - the Kingdom is a gift that our world is unwrapping very, very slowly. And so it takes you. It takes me. Our advent world only feels that way because the gift is only open a little. But Christmas has come. God is on the move, and the invitation is open: here’s a candle. Join the movement. 

Spread the light.

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