Saturday, 6 December 2014

The First Candle

Last Sunday morning, we lit the first candle in the advent wreath at church: the candle of hope. It’s become a ritual, both at church and at home, where our advent wreath sits on the dining room table, and where we sing the candle song every time we light it. “Light the advent candle one, now the waiting has begun...”

Our old advent wreath: I made it in the early 80s. It's pretty beat up, but very precious.

I know the meaning behind the ritual. We are waiting to celebrate the birth of the Christ child who brought hope to the world.  The candles help us mark time. I know the symbolism: that Jesus came as the light of the world. My head knows it all. My heart? Not so much.

Hope:  “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” as poet Emily Dickinson wrote. Hope: the expectation of good. Hope: believing in spite of the evidence.

The truth is, so often the Christmas season is just a jumble of traditions and practices that I observe half-heartedly – the other half of my heart is ticking off the list of stuff that needs to be done, calculating how long each task will take, wondering whether I’ll survive the season intact, or come down with another cold (a Christmas tradition I’d love to skip.)

“A candle of hope, eh?” I think pessimistically. Fine. I’m hoping that everything will get done and that somewhere in the midst of it all, the Christmas spirit will touch me.  My candle of hope is only flickering faintly in the breezes of busyness.

I’m not alone with this feeling. All the newspapers are filled with stories of doom: climate change, wars, abuse of power, economies failing , ebola ... Truly, we wonder, is there any hope for this world, or are we teetering on the edge of disaster? Mostly, we are afraid to hope – isn’t “dwelling in hope” just the action of a romantic idealist, reaching for pie in the sky?

But a funny thing happened as I began my annual  trip to the Bethlehem manger last Sunday. Hope  ambushed my grinchy Christmas spirit and gently showed me a thing or two.

My personal candle of hope
It started that evening, when, on impulse, we invited our in-town family to help us decorate the tree. When the kids were children this had been a ritual on the evening of the first Sunday of Advent; supper was always finger foods and fizzy drinks. Now, 20 years later, once again on the first Sunday of Advent, the tree got decorated. We shared stories about the homemade ornaments with the grandchildren; lots of pizza was eaten and beer consumed; we lit the first advent candle, and sang our song. When the crew left and we were cleaning up, the resident sweetie and I counted our blessings. Against all reason, we realize that some traditions are continuing, and love for each other surrounds us.  Counting your blessings: a way to nourish hope.

Then I picked up my latest good read, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, a book of essays with the  subtitle  “a citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear,”  written by people who have experienced hope in a myriad of ways. All are sharing their  insights on hope so as to encourage and enlighten the most jaded of readers. Each essay I read kick-started my hope-meter.  Leaning on others when our own hope is weak: a way to nourish hope.

The week unfolded with new opportunities to live in hope. I sat with my grandson while he picked out fabric and beads, and designed a little wall hanging, which I helped him make. Sharing your passion and nurturing it in another person: a way to grow hope. The RS and I walked in the woods together, and saw an eagle perched in a tree nearby – “the thing with feathers”. We sensed our connections with the natural world: a link in the chain of hope. I participated in potlucks with quilting friends: a circle of friends to support you breeds hope. And then we attended a performance of The Messiah. The orchestra, the voices, and the audience were united in this awesome experience. Hope swells and grows when we are with other people and are carried away outside ourselves, remembering something much bigger than ourselves.

In the previously mentioned book, African-American singer and songwriter Sonja Tinsley says, “You have to pick your team.” One team dwells on cynicism – nothing you do will make a difference, they say. The other team “admits that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change.” She includes people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on that team. “If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather stick with people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that’s the side I want to be on.”  Me too.

The candle of hope and "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul" were stitched on a repurposed Thai silk scarf.

The full text of the poem about Hope (#314) by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

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