Last night, just as darkness fell, the rain clouds that had soaked us all day suddenly moved off, leaving the sky clear and cold and bright with starlight. Up on the hill at Peace United Church of Christ, we gathered for our annual Advent Spiral, a tradition that many churches have gratefully borrowed from the Waldorf tradition. Early in the day, friends had gathered to lay an enormous, beautiful evergreen spiral on the sanctuary floor. As evening arrived, we gathered to share a lively pot-luck dinner in the hall. Then kids and adults together walked through the cold and dark, over to the sanctuary, where musicians were waiting to welcome us with Christmas carols on violin and cello.
It may not be an obvious choice, adding yet another event to a season already packed with service projects and school parties and Christmas worship. But over the past few years, both here in Santa Cruz and at the church I served in Maine, the Advent Spiral has become one of my favorite moments of Christmas. Last year, it occurred to me that maybe the reason I love the spiral so much is that once it begins, there’s nothing at all for me to do. For a pastor, it’s a rare and wondrous thing to simply sit in the darkened sanctuary and just take in the beauty, the music, the scent of evergreen boughs and candle wax, the reverent silence punctuated by the joyful sound of a toddler’s running feet. Last year, I found myself sitting on the floor with the kids, offering a grateful, silent blessing for each person who slowly walked the spiral to receive, and then to offer, the growing Light.
This year, as the ceremony began, our Advent angel walked ever so solemnly to the spiral’s center to kindle the Light of Christ. As I watched her so carefully and reverently making her way, I was awed once again by the beauty of this rare, contemplative moment in the noisy bustle of the Christmas season. One by one, children and adults followed the angel’s path into the spiral, and once again, I found myself unspeakably grateful to simply sit in sacred darkness and pray for each beloved heart as the light increased, candle by candle, step by step.
And yet, even in the midst of so much beauty, so much hope, so many dear ones walking and praying and singing, I will confess that my prayers were troubled this year. Here we are—so many of us, all over the world—lighting candles in all the ways we humans do, all of us trusting, just as our ancestors did, in the return of the light. But this year in particular, the world itself seems so fragile, so vulnerable to the evil and indifference of we humans, whose job it is, always, to protect this world that God so loves. Step by step, in rain boots, in heels, in thick winter socks, we walked—kindling, carrying, and offering light. I watched every step. And to my surprise, I found my mind, step by step, spiraling not into joy, but into into worry and grief. Worry for the hungry and homeless who would soon be filling the warming center right next door in the church hall. Grief for all the wild ones on the brink of extinction, about to lose the meager protections that have kept them alive. Candle by candle, I wondered how this could possibly be enough, this offering of light that we welcome into our souls and carry into the world. How can our tender, flickering light possibly protect the world we love? How in God’s name will we answer for the starving polar bears who even now are haunting northern towns like emaciated ghosts, their hunting grounds devastated by the ravages of global warming? How will we answer for the hungry and the hurting who are in danger of losing even the flimsy social safety nets we’ve worked so hard to stitch? Can we honestly look into our children’s eyes and promise them that the light they carry in their hands tonight, the light we carry in our hearts, will be enough to protect the most vulnerable among us, human and otherwise? Can we trust, even now, that a Light bigger and far more ancient than ourselves still shines in the darkness…and that the darkness will not overcome it?
After all the songs had been sung, after the cider had been passed around and the cookies sampled, we began to make our way home. As I drove down the hill, Christmas lights glowed from rooftops all over town, spiraling up tree trunks, circling into signs of peace. Down near the train tracks, I watched as a woman wheeled all her worldly belongings in a too-flimsy laundry cart, heading for the emergency shelter and the blessing of a safe night’s rest.
I’m pretty sure that the next few years are going to take all the light we can muster. All the hope, all the promise, all the gritty perseverance of a community that knows a thing or two about how to take care of the most vulnerable, about how to put our comfort, our security, and maybe our very lives on the line to protect the earth and all her creatures.
But maybe not tonight. Maybe this Christmas Eve, our only job, our holy vocation, is to fill our souls with enough joy, enough of the Christ Light, to carry us out, tomorrow, into a world that needs us. Maybe tonight, our only job is to keep a close eye on that angel. I wish you could have seen her last night, solemn as only a third-grader can be, walking ever so slowly a spiral path to the very heart of the world. I wish you could have seen the face of this child whom we love more than life itself, this child we’ve taught to count on God’s promises, this child we’ve taught to love God’s world—a world that needs her gifts, her light, her love of polar bears and spotted newts. I wish you could have seen her face last night as she walked, confident that we were cheering her on, so confident that her every step mattered, because she was carrying the Light of the World.
Tonight, as the tall tapers are kindled in the sanctuary and a trumpet blast announces the good news, let’s fill ourselves up to the brim with joy. Let’s let tomorrow’s Christmas celebrations overflow with laughter and hope and rest – for our children, and for all the ones we love. And then, filled and feted and fed, let’s gather up every last candle and head out together, into forest and field, into shelters and streets, carrying the Light of the World.
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you…’ ”