Tuesday, December 01, 2009 12:00 AM
Last Sunday, listening to the children's choir, I heard them sing this line:
We light the Advent candles against the winter night.
Not "in the winter night" or "because of the winter night." Against it. That preposition--against--is vital, for it expresses a key piece of Advent's meaning.
We do not light candles and put lamps on greenery to concede ground to the increasingly long nights that December brings to the northern hemisphere. Our subtle lights are not merely a coping strategy, or a deal we make with Mother Nature ("OK, you make it dark and cold; we'll light candles to limit the inconvenience you cause"). Nor are Advent's lights about creating aesthetic contrasts or using the night as a backdrop. Instead, Christians make a statement against the descent toward the winter solstice and what it might symbolically represent in terms of deep ignorance, lifelessness, and despair.
The feeble flames on our Advent wreaths are lit in protest.
It is a statement protesting what we see all around us. Despite such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the night will not prevail. We know better. As the swiftly tilting planet enacts its slow and steady march toward cold dormancy, candles flickering in a sanctuary defy the suggestion that hope, too, is waning.
With each flame we light, we insist on interpreting our lives and our future as part of a different narrative.
Christians are Advent people. That is, Christians are waiting people. We live year-round in the long cusp between promise and fulfillment. We wait not in smug or anxious passivity, but in active and defiant (can we still say audacious?) hope. In Advent, set against the visceral symbolism provided by nature's cycle, we remember that we live as Christ's followers and imitators: defying so many social conventions and so much conventional wisdom, interpreting reality differently, and insisting that God will have the final word in the world's story.
Because we are Advent people, waiting in a world that is estranged from God's reign, we are protest people.
Last weekend I heard also about a movement called Advent Conspiracy.
It urges Christians to resist the consumerist excesses of Christmas and calls them to use their money to provide clean drinking water to impoverished communities that lack it. Of course, runaway consumerism is not the sum of our world's problems, but certainly it is a nasty and treatable symptom--a worthy object of Christian protest. I mention the Advent Conspiracy simply to note one form that a Christian posture of protest against our societies' dominant narratives can assume.
The Advent Conspiracy's literature pits the gospel's world-changing narrative against the commercial excesses of Christmas in America and asks Christians, "What kind of story would you like to enter?" That is the same question Christians pose to the world, subtly enacted through the candlelight that pierces the night, and openly expressed through our values, actions, and speech.