She held the tall slim candle with confidence, raised up ahead of a gaze focused on both the candle and the worship space ahead of her. With the concentration of a child who realizes she’s up to something important, she slowly climbed the chancel steps and then carefully lifted the candle to its right spot in the Advent wreath. And then she stepped back so the child behind her could light the candle accordingly.
A few minutes later she took her place in the pulpit, the curly top of her head most all the back half of the sanctuary could likely see, with her too short for grown-up sized lectern. And then she spoke, “All good gifts come from God…,” the first line of a lengthy (for a seven year-old who in the not-so distant past could not yet read) reading designed to help those gathered enter into the season of Advent.
By her last line, “God and sinners reconciled,” words echoing the Christmas carol that would next be sung, her sweet clear voice, just a tad timid at first, had grown strong and sure.
And her mother, sitting four rows back (much closer to the chancel than said mother ever otherwise would), could no longer hold back the tears brimming up from the depths of a very grateful heart.
I was not prepared for how powerful it would be to hear my daughter’s voice reading sacred words on this first Sunday of Advent, this Hope Sunday. She’s still so small, in the grand scheme of things. And yet there she stood, calling forth words from another time and place altogether, and yet words present with us still today, the innocence of her tone and inflection somehow exactly right for such mighty and holy declarations of God’s love for her and all of us.
I spent some fifteen years in congregational ministry, and during those years I loved preaching Advent most. These days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are the days that ground me for the rest of the year. The words we speak and preach and sing across the four Sundays of Advent are the ones that have always brought me closest to God, the ones that have made the most sense to me, held me fast, no matter what was happening around me.
Don’t get me wrong. I love presents. And lights. And peppermint mochas. And National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
But mostly I love to hear, as that one song my daughter and I both love goes:
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea
Because that voice reminds me that all is not lost. That in the face of all that may threaten to undo us, throw us off course, make us believe that perhaps evil has the day after all, there is, after all and always, hope.
I’m not sure how you declare such hope in the face of Ferguson. Or along the border of the United States and Mexico.
I’m not sure how you declare such hope to someone who has just received a diagnosis of cancer, or just lost a loved one, or doesn’t know how Christmas will be Christmas at all because he’s just been laid off and there’s no one but him to be Santa to the kids at home.
I’m not sure how you declare such hope when heartache is more real than it has ever been and so you’re having a hard time seeing past it into anything else.
Except that…I do.
I do declare it. Beyond everything that would tell me/us not to, I hope. And I do that because I trust in the ultimate goodness of the Universe, despite being unable to prove that goodness to myself or you or anyone else.
I know this much is True–the story of a baby come to save the world (the facts, or “truth,” around said birth not mattering one wit to me) is such a powerful one because at its very core is life. New life, dropped right into the sometimes chaos and sometimes hurt of living, announcing to anyone who’ll listen that beauty is still among us. That a better way is possible.
And that way is love.
It makes all the sense in the world that children led the worship service I attended this first Sunday of Advent. This Hope Sunday. After all,
“…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6 NRSV)
May it be so.