Waiting, Preparing, and Lighting Candles Wherever You Are

“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.”

These words were written from a small cell in a Nazi prison camp by Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who would shortly thereafter be hanged as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler. I recently came across this quote in a book of Advent readings and I asked myself: If Alfred Delp could write about “The Shaking Reality of Advent” in such a time from such a place, what about us, this December 2009, here in America?

I feel very pensive about Advent this year. I think it is partially because Advent is a season of waiting, of preparation, and of lighting of candles. It is a time when we prepare to celebrate The Arrival. The Arrival of a baby whose birth changed everything. Absolutely everything. Everywhere. Forever. Even in a Nazi prison cell. Or in Afghanistan. Or Iraq. Or an economic downturn in the USA. A Very Big Arrival.

On a smaller scale in our house, even as we prepare to celebrate that Very Big Arrival, we are also awaiting and preparing for a very different kind of arrival—the arrival of our son Lars home to his family in North Carolina sometime very soon—by December 10, we hope. And then his arrival with his family, as well as the arrival of Bjorn and Erika and their families, to celebrate Christmas with us here in Brookfield. We are counting down the days. We are getting ready to celebrate!

But I am also thinking, as we prepare to rejoice in Lars’ homecoming and the celebration of Christmas in our home, of the many troops who will celebrate Christmas away from their families. And the many families who will be missing a son or daughter, husband or wife, sibling or parent around their tables this year.

And I’m thinking of the stories I’ve heard just this week from people for whom this Advent—this Christmas—seems hard and dark and uncertain. A marriage is on the rocks. A job has just vanished. Finances are tighter than ever. A battle is raging, despite the best professional help available, with anxiety and depression and fear.

The world can be a very dark place indeed. But is that any reason not to light the candles of Advent? Oh, no. I think it may be all the more reason to light the candles. To be reminded of the Light that shone down from heaven on that Bethlehem night so long ago. The Light which shines down into our hearts as we open them to Him. That “true light, who gives light to everyone…” (John 1:9)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once compared Advent to a prison cell “in which one waits and hopes and does various nonessential things…but is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” And that is the story of Christmas: God opened the door! He gave. He came. He comes.

If that isn’t reason to light the candles, I don’t know what is.