Lighting a candle in the darkness is a powerful symbol of hope. The strength of even a single candle to dispel darkness is something I learned memorably as a Boy Scout. I went caving with my troop on a handful of trips. Gathered in a room in a cave with our headlamps combining to bounce lights off the stalactites hanging from the ceiling and stalagmites slowly rising up from the cave floor, we would turn off all our lights at once and sit in silence in the darkness that seemed denser in a cavern under the earth. Not the tiniest glimmer could leak in.
The first time we did this when I twelve, I found the feeling of an abyss frightening. Surrounded by friends, I felt so completely alone. Then a leader struck a match to light a candle. That was enough. Our eyes could adjust to see so much by that one point of light.
This week, more than a billion Christians will mark the First Sunday of Advent. From the Latin word Adventus, meaning “coming,” advent is marked in the four weeks leading to Christmas. It is a time to remember that Jesus promised to come again. We look toward that Second Coming even as we prepare to celebrate his first advent in Bethlehem. Lighting a candle in an advent wreath is a way some churches mark this season, with an additional candle lit each week. A brief advent wreath service in the home is a way individuals and families can also keep this season. The hope held out by even a single flame is so needed in this year of pandemic.
Some years ago, my wife, Victoria, and I experienced worshipping in the midst of a storm in a way that revealed something important to me about the hope of this season. A storm blackened the sky as we drove to church for Sunday evening worship. As the service progressed, rain loudly pelted the metal roof of the old church. At one point, thunder boomed and the power went out. Candles already lit, worship continued without pause.
As we approached the breaking of the bread in Communion, the bulletin noted “Worshippers are invited to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer.” To my left, I reached for Victoria’s hand as I have done for more than three decades. At the altar and in the emergency room, and in a great variety of situations, we have held one another’s hands. Then I reached back and a woman I could not see readily took my hand as I reached back. Jesus’ words recited in prayer, the woman behind me squeezed my hand and then let it go. It was the smallest of touches, but her squeeze felt meaningful, important. The touch we shared as the storm beat against the church made communion all the more real.
Quite coincidentally, the next day we watched the movie Toy Story 3. In the animated film there is a scene where the toys we have come to love in the previous two films face what appears to be certain destruction. They are traveling down a conveyor belt toward a furnace. Despite bold attempts at saving themselves, no further options remain.
Facing this moment of certain annihilation with no hope of rescue no words are exchanged, however, a look a “what now” passes across the faces of the toys. Then one reaches to hold another’s hand. One by one they reach out to hold another’s hand. In that moment of holding one another’s hands in the face of uncertainty, relief comes in. Not that rescue seems more likely, but the toys know that whatever they face, they will face it together. Hope is restored like a light shining in the darkness.
When the toys reached out to hold hands, showing their love for one another in a time of great uncertainty, I remembered powerfully the feeling of holding hands in church the evening before. I knew then what the creators of Toy Story 3 showed so clearly in animating the facial expressions of the toys, when the moment of “now what” comes, the hope is in not having to face the unknown alone. Togetherness changes nothing in the problem before us and yet in bearing one another’s burdens everything is different.
We all share a longing, a need for hope. We need the word we find in John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). As we journey toward Christmas, lighting candles to mark the season, the hope we see in that light dispelling darkness is that whatever we face, we do not face it alone. This is true as the God who made us and loves us is with us. And as we light candles to mark the season, we can also make calls to check in on those who are cut off because of the pandemic, to offer a hand and to share that hope. Even as we light candles, we can be that glimmer of hope for others.