The first week of December holds an infamous anniversary for me. This time a few years ago, I found myself flat on my back for nearly a full week after I was hit full-force by a most memorable stomach virus. At the time, pre-pandemic, it seemed like about the worst thing anyone could endure; certainly, for me, it was one of the most disruptive illnesses I’d ever experienced.
Among the legacies of the virus was that my sleep schedule flipped upside down and, almost overnight, I became nocturnal. Night after night, I lay on our pull-out couch, tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling, craving sleep but doubting it would ever come, waiting, desperately, for the blackness of night outside the windows to give way to the blue light of dawn. And in those periods of waiting in the darkness, I began to get a taste of what it can be like to lose hope when the darkness around us never seems to ebb.
Advent is a season of waiting, and so, it is also a season of darkness. Isaiah describes the “people walking in darkness,” waiting for a “great light” to shine. And how many of us found ourselves walking through great darkness this year! How many times over the past nine months have I found myself saying, “I guess we’ll wait and see.” And the waiting is hard, and dark, uncertain and unforgiving, just like the bleakness of my sick bed in the depths of midnight.
In The Two Towers, Tolkien plunges us into the depths of darkness beside Sam and Frodo as they are led unknowingly into the lair of the horrible spider-creature Shelob:
The tunnel was high and wide, so wide that, though the hobbits walked abreast, only touching the side-walls with their outstretched hands, they were separated, cut off alone in the darkness.
But as they move deeper into the tunnel, Sam and Frodo begin to lose hope, as they lose sight of the light to guide them.
Presently, groping and fumbling in the dark, they found that the opening on the left was blocked: either it was a blind, or else some great stone had fallen in the passage. ‘This can’t be the way,’ Frodo whispered.
Soon after moving into our house a decade ago, the first my wife and I had ever owned, we went hunting for a name for it. It seemed appropriate to give the house we aspired to raise our young family an identity, sort of a mission statement of sorts for the values we would seek to incarnate.
The name we settled on was Flamehaven, for if we wished to incarnate our values in this home, establishing this place as a haven for the good and beautiful and truthful seemed a worthy identity. Every time we said the name, we would remind ourselves that here in this home, we tend the flame. Through our rising and resting, our going out and our coming in, we find a way to keep the flame of the Gospel burning, so we can pass it on to our children, and, Lord willing, generations to come.
“Be dressed, ready for service, and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him,” says Jesus.
In Advent, we wait in the darkness. But we do not, I am convinced, wait hopelessly. For while we wait, we can tend the flame. The stories each of our homes are telling can be ones that lend flesh to truth, goodness, and beauty, so that the waiting we do can tend the flame of the Gospel flickering inside our hearts. Because of the coming of Christ, wrapping himself in flesh, a thousand everyday tasks, the ones that seem mundane or insignificant, can be shot through with light, redeemed with purpose, as we carry them out in the service of tending the holy flame.
“Jesus came and departed. But his resurrection means that everything in God’s kingdom is alive; in every moment there is something happening,” writes Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt. “For those who listen for Christ’s coming, a knock sounds over and over again. The things that come forth are not necessarily highly spiritual. Sometimes they are very simple things.”
This is what it means to wait: to nurture the flame and watch for the light. For, you may remember, the story of Sam and Frodo does not end meekly there in Shelob’s lair. They, too, had a light.
Then as he stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw… a light in his mind, almost unbearably bright at first…. ‘Master, master!’ cried Sam, and the life and urgency came back into his voice. ‘The Lady’s gift! The star-glass! A light to you in dark places …
Slowly… he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame…, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded….
The hope of our salvation is for us, in each moment that we wait in the darkness, our own silver flame of hope, so that we may see the darkness recede. And each moment of this Advent season that we wait, we can see all around us glimmers of this hope, lived out in the simple, everyday tasks that are set before us. In each moment of this season, we can send sparks of light into the darkness that can guide others toward the one Story.
“We have to begin with what we can see … If you look for the truth in small matters you will not go astray in big ones,” says Blumhardt. “ Let us keep staunch in our eagerness to do whatever comes to us of the truth … “
And so, in Advent, a season of waiting for the light, often in places of darkness, we keep our eyes fixed on the hope we have in our hearts and tell stories which remind us of the flame which can never be extinguished.Featured image by Jade Payne