Hope in the Power of Light II
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
December 2, 2018
First Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Hope
Jeremiah lived in a time of utter devastation in Jerusalem. The nation was being destroyed, houses burned to the ground, orchards pulled up by the roots, the temple torn down and the people slaughtered or carried in captivity to Babylon. Jeremiah was imprisoned for prophesying that the nation would fall into ruin because it was so corrupt with selfishness, greed and the neglect of the poor.
Yet Jeremiah saw a path of restoration. He saw a way that they could rebuild their society and live sustainably in peace and sufficiency for all. It was not too late. The force of love and life and light they called Yahweh would restore them if they turned and followed the sacred path of compassion, justice and love. Jeremiah held out this hope, and those who survived in exile followed its light, and it saved them.
Every year during Advent I reread the title story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Hanukkah collection, The Power of Light. It takes place in a more recent time of utter devastation when the Nazis had bombed and burned the Warsaw ghetto.
David was fourteen, and Rebecca, thirteen. “It was winter and bitter cold outside. For weeks Rebecca had not left the dark, partially collapsed cellar that was their hiding place, but every few days David would go out to search for food.”
One frigid day Rebecca sat shivering in the cellar, knowing that if David did not return, she would die. The Nazis had killed both of their families and soldiers still watched the ruins of the ghetto night and day, shooting any survivors. Every time David went out, they knew that they might never see each other again. Finally, she heard David return. She cried out in relief and they hugged and kissed. David reported he had found a treasure—frozen potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, a bag of candy and a surprise.
They were starving, but ate only a little to make it last. Rebecca asked about the surprise. David said, “Rebecca, I think today is the first day of Hanukkah, and I found a candle stub and some matches!”
David said the blessing and lit the candle, and for the first time in weeks they saw each other’s faces. They were filthy and much thinner, but their eyes shone. They had talked about trying to escape, but fear and hopelessness had held Rebecca back. Now, “that glimmer of light, surrounded by so many shadows, seemed to say without words: Evil has not yet taken complete dominion. A spark of hope is still left.”
Rebecca said, “Let’s leave.”
David had a plan. The Nazis guarded every exit from the ghetto, but he had found an entrance to a sewer. It was dangerous. They could drown or freeze to death in the dirty water, and the sewers were full of ravenous rats, but it was their only chance. To remain in the ghetto meant certain death.
The Hanukkah candle began to sputter. They gathered their few belongings and the remaining food. It was a terrible, long journey to the sewer without being shot, but once there they found the water frozen and the rats gone. They crawled for hours, resting from time to time. Finally, they heard a streetcar overhead and knew they had escaped.
They hoped to find Jewish partisans who were hiding in the forest beyond Warsaw. By the time they found them it was the last night of Hanukkah. They played dreidel on a stump in the glow of a fully lit menorah.
They could have died many times on the journey, but eight years later David and Rebecca told Isaac Bashevis Singer this story one Hanukkah evening in their home in Israel. Their little boy was playing with the very dreidel carved by the partisans in the forest.
Rebecca said, “If it had not been for that little candle David brought to our hiding place, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. That glimmer of light awakened in us a hope and strength we didn’t know we possessed.”
This story is a parable of how to live in the ruins of a former life. We all go through transitions, sooner or later we all suffer troubles or upheavals or losses that plunge our world into a state of disorientating darkness. Right now our whole world is in such a transition.
We can feel like both David and Rebecca in those times, one part of us seeking a way to escape to new life, another part wanting to hide in the ruins and never come out.
Advent offers us a path of liberation from fear and hopelessness, but it goes against our cultural training. Christ does not come to us as military might, Christ comes to us as a helpess refugee baby born in a barn. Advent does not come with the powerful spotlights of the Nazis on the ghetto walls but with a guttering candle in a bombed-out basement.
Advent offers us the wisdom of the Psalm that says, “For God alone, my soul waits in silence; for my hope is in God.” It speaks through Isaiah, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Jesus tells us that when the world is crashing around us we should wait and watch and pray.
This is Advent’s path of liberation. This is the power of light it offers. It comes through narrowing the scope of our lives, focusing on the Spirit, letting other things go.
This is hard to hear when are experiencing what the Advent book Watch for the Light describes. It says, “For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called ‘the holiday season’ turns out to be the most stressful time of the year.”
The Advent path of waiting and praying is also hard when the whole world feels like the Warsaw Ghetto. Today fascists are attacking synagogues and people of color. Guarded walls and weapons repel refugees who are fleeing poverty and oppression. Science tells us we have little time left to change our way of life before environmental upheaval leads to the collapse of civilization or human extinction.
The candle that Advent holds out feels weak and foolish in the face of all that, and yet it can work a transformation in us as it did in David and Rebecca.
The great hope of Advent is that we will find within our heart the power of light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome, and it will move us from being paralyzed by hopelessness to being freed by courage. The hope is that we will dare to open the doors of our heart and our church even if just a crack to let our candle shine out and transform the world.
The wisdom of our spiritual tradition calls us to follow the Advent path, take time for spiritual practice, watch for the light, and then act as that light inspires us.
Jeremiah foresaw that one day we would create a new society, and its name would be, “God is my righteousness.” Advent recruits us to join a counter-cultural revolution leading from ruinous violence to the compassion, justice and peace of God’s realm on earth. I hope you will join that Advent movement, I hope you will allow this season to move you.
I hope you will lift your candle of love into the silent night and bring Christ to birth by the power of your light.
Let us pray together in silence…