By this time tomorrow, two of five candles in the Advent wreath sitting on my coffee table will be burning brightly. Advent, which literally means arrival or coming, is the holy season that unfolds during the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
A candle is lit for every Advent Sunday; a fifth candle—the white “Christ candle”—is reserved for Christmas. Advent is the season in which we anticipate the coming Christ-child. It’s a time to get excited about Jesus’ birthday!
Advent is important because it connects us with the ancient Jewish belief of a messianic hope. Consider the political context in which Jesus was born: Rome cast its monstrous shadow over Israel at the time, and such hope in God’s triumphant messiah was a much-needed commodity.
The heavy hand of the Empire squeezed taxes and labor from the entire peasantry. Israel’s oppression and poverty was a fact of life. The hardships of the average Israelite in the first century made the messianic expectation a hopeful, though strenuously anxious, habit.
The closest we can come to feeling the anxiety of those who lived in the first century is when we consider our current, global economic crisis. Skyrocketing unemployment and limited resources have plunged us into an unfamiliar darkness. No wonder so many people are angry with government and fed up with institutions in general.
The Israelites reacted to Rome’s occupation in anger and desperation. Some looted while others resorted to violence. Many joined prophetic communities in the outskirts of the Judean desert, one of which was the community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran.
But in the midst of this uncertainty, in a little corner of the rural village of Galilee, God’s angels visited four parents—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph—to let them know that it was time for God to send a Messiah to save Israel from despair. This Messiah would not resort to violence; nor would he flee to the desert and disengage from society.
Zechariah’s response to God’s revelation is what we call the “Benedictus”; his was a prayer that revealed Israel’s sense of longing (Luke 1:67-79): “God has raised up a mighty Savior for us…as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”
Long ago, in that Galilean landscape, God chose a dark era indeed to shine His holy light upon all the people of the earth. It is during Advent that we remember the coming of this Light, and we look for it like the Magi looked for a peculiar star in the midst of darkness. We await the flame of the foretold King.
Like stars shining in the night sky, those four candles on my coffee table are sentinels that pierce the present darkness. When their flames dance, I can’t help but think that God will stoke anew his Newborn Light in my heart, community, and church this year as God does every year.
The flame’s warmth dispels angst, anxiety, and anger; it is like the warmth of the Holy Baby’s presence that nuzzles deep in my innermost being. The Baby pushes out the darkness. He combats the cold. He comes with a message of hope, peace, love, and joy.
Anticipation is met with unabashed glory, and the conclusion of Zechariah’s prayer rings true: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.”