Demand the Light
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
It was Christmas, 1975, and I began early that year crafting my letter to Santa. I was five years old and it was the first year I’d written with real words, crooked letters and funny misspellings drawn in crayon, illustrated with my best attempts at drawing a Christmas tree. I felt an urgency that year, I recall, because there was something I deeply wanted for Christmas. I was pretty sure, in fact, that my life would be over if I did not wake up on Christmas morning to find what my heart so desperately longed for.
She was called Baby Alive, a new toy widely advertised on television, and she came with little packets of food you could mix with water and then feed her. I wanted this doll with all my heart, and I wasn’t shy about making that fact known. I talked about Baby Alive incessantly (which I recall my mother used to her advantage with various vague threats warning of her close relationship with Santa). And I made my case as urgently as I could. I wrote that letter to the North Pole. I pored over the dog-eared JCPenney catalog page where she appeared. I tried to be very, very, very good. And I could barely sleep the night before Christmas, hoping beyond hope that I’d done enough to convince Santa to bring me a Baby Alive.
You can imagine my elation, then, the next morning, when we opened our presents and Santa had, in fact, brought me a Baby Alive. She wore a blue terrycloth jumpsuit and her brown hair was pulled into two ponytails on either side of her head. As advertised, she came with 20 packets of food to mix with water. I fed her every single one of them that same day. And I loved it—my campaign had paid off!
Think for a minute with me, back to the best gift you ever received. It could be anything, on any occasion. It’s the thing that sets your world to rights, the gift for which you’ve been longing forever. Remember what it was? During these next few weeks we’ll be talking about gifts, trying to peer through the darkness for just enough light to see clearly all the possibility and hope that we will claim when we welcome God With Us.
And one of the most profound gifts we have in these dark and fear-filled days is each other—this community—the power and promise of which allows us to even summon the courage to hope. And so we’ll be turning toward each other, talking with each other, reminding each other of the simple and profound gifts of the season. Today we begin with this question: what is the best gift you have ever received?
It’s important as we begin the season of Advent, to remember the simple gifts, things that bring us hope, because the darkness around us is deep and thick and fear-filled. And this is no coincidence: at the very start of a brand new church year, we note that its dawning begins soundly in the dark, with the light of day waning far too early and all of us navigating the subway to get home after nightfall, turning on lamps and Christmas tree lights to make our apartments feel warm, and trying everything we can think of to push away the darkness. And in these weeks leading up to Christmas the darkness of winter and the darkness of doubt, fear, insecurity—all the hardest parts of what it means to be human—converge…and leave us longing for something hopeful, for just even a small glimmer of light.
The words of scripture we’ve heard this first Sunday of Advent, the start of the church year, are, in fact, words spoken in darkness, apocalyptic texts that tell of the end of things, not the beginning.
And that makes sense, because the people reading Mark’s recounting of life with Jesus would have been doing it in the shadow of the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation. That revolt was met with the Romans starving out Jerusalem, breaking into the city, and destroying the temple. Christians were being punished for their faith, losing jobs, security, family. For Mark’s readers, every day felt like the end of the world, disbelief and pain and destruction all around them. Things seemed so bad that hoping for the gift of light in the darkness was not just a casual pastime—it was flatly a matter of life and death.
Listen to the language of urgency in all the texts this morning: “tear open the heavens!, shine forth!, keep awake!, dark, light, stars falling, heaven shaken, O God, let your face shine!” This is not the kind of waiting we’re accustomed to: waiting in line, waiting on hold for customer service, waiting for the world to change, as John Mayer would sing. The kind of waiting our texts call for here is never described in the language of complacency or enacted from the posture of futile surrender; this is a defiant call for the light, an insistence that this simple gift has been ours all along and we expect it to—we demand that it will—break through the darkness of our world.
The first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope, and Rebecca Solnit reminds us: “It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. [This hope]…is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act…. Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as to ‘Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams’.” Hope like this doesn’t just wait for the light; hope like this demands the light. There’s no time to sit back and passively wish for something to get better; the darkness is pressing in all around us.
As we transition from ordinary time into Advent, we acknowledge that the world these days seems anything but ordinary. In fact, our world seems to feel especially lacking in hope this year. Politics in this country are spiraling out of control, we feel as if we’re hurtling toward a catastrophic disaster of vast proportions, like the very fundamental identity we thought we knew is totally gone. Darkness. And so, in these moments, we will turn again toward each other and toward God, claiming the simple gifts of our lives that call us toward hope.
What do we do? Where do we find enough courage to hope? How do we respond to the darkness?
When we look at our lives and all we can see are the deepening shadows of despair, broken relationships, loneliness, desperation, depression, fear…when we look in the mirror and hate what we see…when our hearts ache for the warmth of an absent presence…when we cannot summon the courage to live as our true selves in the world…when all that we hoped for our lives does not materialize as we’d imagined…Advent calls us to demand the light.
When elected officials conspire to enact corrupt tax laws, to hurt the poor, to violate the very principles of honor and trust and freedom on which our corporate life is founded…when social media rants by deeply unstable world leaders result in our Muslim brothers and sisters suffering direct and dangerous results…when power and privilege run rampant to hurt, harass, and dehumanize women…when the faith we claim to follow—a gospel of love and justice—becomes a club that bludgeons the most vulnerable among us…the when human constructs wobble and political frameworks are dismantled and what made us feel safe before makes us feel vulnerable and even deeply afraid now…this is how we wait: we demand the light.
When this precious earth is dying as the result of our neglect and greed…when refugees run from decimated cities only to drown or be turned away at the border…when human bodies are still—still!—being sold into slavery…when children are starving and humanity’s soul is rotting from the inside out, what shall we do? We will DEMAND THE LIGHT.
For the simple gift of light in the deepest darkness, we summon and audacious, insistent hope this first Sunday of Advent. We will not be silent in the face of evil. We will not be participate in the sin that surrounds us. We will not be bowed by the weight of the darkness. We will summon an audacious hope…we will DEMAND THE LIGHT.
Let your face shine on us, O Lord, so we may be saved.