A Ray of Light

Long ago, in childhood and youth, I loved the weeks of heightened excitement and anticipation before Christmas: the first festive decorations appearing in store windows, never before Thanksgiving back then, Christmas trees for sale on corner lots, and at home searching through the pages of the mammoth Sears catalog for toys to add to my wish list. One year I learned a hard but important lesson in the meaning of pre-Christmas waiting and anticipating. My best friend, Bobby Ainsworth, told me that he had rummaged through his parents’ closet and discovered a trove of gifts he would receive on Christmas morning. Prompted by Bobby I conducted my own search one afternoon when I found myself home alone. I had my heart set that year on a baseball glove, a new three-fingered model, a Ball Hawk. I was sure a Ball Hawk would increase my possibility of one day playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Just like Bobby, I rummaged through my parent’s bedroom closet and, sure enough, there it was, nestled in a box from a sporting goods store, a gorgeous, brand new three-fingered Ball Hawk. I have never forgotten what it felt like, on my hands and knees in my parents’ closest, finding my heart’s desire. I was pleased, of course. After all, it was exactly what I had been hoping and longing for. But I was also deflated and, in truth, ashamed. There was no more giddy excitement, no more impatiently waiting in hope.

I think about it every year at this time and it reminds me why we observe Advent. Over the years my childish excited anticipation of Christmas and receiving my heart’s desire transformed and deepened and Advent became my favorite season of the year, still enhanced, I admit, by remnants of the childhood pre-Christmas excitement.

Advent is about hopeful yearning for, anticipating God’s precious promise. The Biblical texts take us to the promise that a Kingdom of peace and justice is on the way, coming but not yet fully here. The great Advent hymns remind us that God’s people have been at it for a long time, for millennia, living between hope and fulfillment and that just enough of the promised Kingdom breaks into our lives to keep us waiting and hoping and anticipating. “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” we sing, “and ransom, captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.” The liturgical color turns to purple reflecting the sense of anticipating something that is not fully here yet.

It is such a contrast to what is happening all around us. Where I live and used to work it is Christmas already and has been for weeks. The commercial street a block away glistens with bright lights, there are sales in every store and literally thousands of shoppers, so many on weekends that walking on the sidewalk or trying to cross the street is treacherous. I do love, as always, the energy and color and general spirit of good will which has been in such short supply recently. But I also think that the subtler notions of anticipating, hoping for what is not here yet, get quite lost in the midst of it all. And I also believe we very much need Advent hope this time around.

Never in my life has my country, this precious experiment in republican democracy, seemed so fragile. The long consensus that two political parties, advocating their own ideals and policies, but ultimately working together through negotiation and compromise for the good of the nation has disappeared. In its place is a virulent partisanship, the President himself calling members of the other party traitors and human scum. Long gone also is the important notion that partisan politics stops at our national borders and responsible, effective foreign policy, by its very nature, is non-partisan. Instead the President uses every international venue to attack and demean his critics. It is unprecedented and dangerous. Gone as well is any notion of a responsible, loyal opposition within political parties. Instead members of the President’s party march in lock step behind him even as he creates new, alternate reality whole cloth, lying thousands of times with no apparent relationship to the truth.

I need Advent’s promise that light shines in the darkness and that darkness cannot and will not overcome the light. And – just in time – a ray of light broke through the darkness. I’ve written about Rachel before but this is just too wonderful not to share and her parents graciously have given me permission.

Rachel’s father, my son, works and mostly lives these days in Manhattan. Rachel’s mom spends a lot of time in New York City these days as well and last week took Rachel, on vacation from school, to New York for a visit. Rachel, 25, is a wonderful young woman with Down Syndrome, participates in National Louis University’s extraordinary program for people with special needs, is a member and regular worshipper at our church where, once again last Sunday, she sat beside me singing Advent hymns enthusiastically and at full volume. Yesterday I received a text video from her mother of Rachel, bundled up against the cold on a Manhattan sidewalk. She was shopping with her mother and they came upon the Christmas display at Bloomingdales. There was a karaoke microphone and giant speakers on the side of the department store all the way down Lexington Avenue. Passersby were invited to stop and sing a carol or Christmas song which is then blasted through the speakers into the busy street.

Now, Rachel cannot resist an open mic. The video recorded her on the bustling Manhattan sidewalk singing her heart out into the mic, the music broadcast over the crowds: “The First Noel, the Angels did say, was to certain poor shepherd in field where they lay…….’ She got it all, every word and note, full volume as always, including the place in the last line where the tenors and bases and sometimes sopranos run up a full half octave, “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel! Born is the King of Israel.” Then she modulated smoothly into a lively verse of “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Smiling people stopped on the sidewalk and applauded.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome the light, and will not; not ever.

Comments

  1. Tears of joy with love and appreciation for all who do such Good

  2. Thank you, John. Beautifully done. Rachel is your three-finger glove – the gift of a lifetime.

  3. Once again, your words come at a time we all need healing from the madness of our current world. Thank you.

  4. Carolann Zaha says:

    I pray daily for our Pres. who has worked so hard for our country. He has been attacked and attacked. Most Christian leaders are supporting him entirely. Enough said!carolann

  5. Sari Frey says:

    Thank you, John. I sat here wondering what my ray of light is, what gives me hope in this troubled time. It is when I see kindness and civility in action.

  6. Thank you so much. Once again, you point me toward hopefulness.

  7. Robert Nowak says:

    SPOT ON ! It takes courage to stand in the breach – My thoughts exactly, as a Christian, American, Grandfather we need to be lead back on track. I pray for this – THIS CHRISTMAS. God bless YOU SHIRLEY

  8. Becky Chamberlain says:

    Thank you so much John for these words of hope in a dark time and for the wonderful story of Rachel, belting out the Story she knows by heart! I have fond memories of Christmas in Chicago and with you and the entire staff and congregation at Fourth! A blessing I will never forget!

  9. The 2019 Christmas holiday is now a memory, like the Christmas celebrations of long ago. Now is the time to reflect on our many reasons to be grateful and to know that the light of heaven will always shine. Thank you for the lesson and continued blessings.

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