Never has that passage from Isaiah chapter 9 meant more to me than it does this year.
And never have the observance of the rhythms, rituals, and intention of Advent held such meaning.
I cried on our drive home from Thanksgiving dinner. Cried for the absence of Kyle's dad at the table, cried because it was so big and so palpable that no one dared touch it with words. Cried because after lengthy discussion and negotiation, we had decided not to put up our big Christmas tree this year, knowing on a logical level that it would only end in disaster because of two babies that pull up on anything that they can grab hold of, but on a heart level, it felt like one more thing taken from me.
Decorating the tree on the day after Christmas was one sweet tradition I pulled from my own childhood, a glittery ritual that was healthy and happy and good. Our tree is nothing special - tall and prelit and plastic. For years, though, it held on its branches ornaments crafted by soft little hands and memories that marked each year of our family's life. But this year, it remains tucked in its carefully taped cardboard box in the basement.
Sadness mixed with stubbornness and sparked a plan that made me crazy enough to take all four kids to Hobby Lobby on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and there we found not only a smaller tree to grace the landing of our staircase where the babies could only look and not destroy, but we also found even smaller trees for the girls to each put in their room.
They invited a friend from next door over to help them decorate their bedroom trees, and I turned them loose with the box of decorations. It was in that box that Aliza Joy found the four purple candles and one white candle that I had always used for our advent wreath. "We're going to keep these in our room and light them every night," she informed me. (That's how things go with AJ. She doesn't so much ask anything as much as she informs everyone.)
I started to protest as that is not where the advent wreath goes, but then I thought, why not?
And so it was on the first night of Advent that I explained to them again about the four candles and why they are purple and why one is white. How we only light one at the beginning, how we mark the time as we look forward with longing to the coming of Christ.
My words turned to Isaiah, and I pondered the significance of verb tense. (These are the things that lovers of words ponder.)
In the New Living Translation, that verse is translated in the future: The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. It makes the words of the prophet seem so very, well, prophetic.
In the English Standard Version, we read it in the past tense: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. A reminder of how the people waited and hoped for the Messiah to walk amongst them.
And until this year, that's how I've always framed Advent, a remembrance of the time when the people walked in darkness without the light of Christ, without the living picture of God the Father, without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. A reverence for the people past, the ones to whom Isaiah originally spoke.
One of the gifts of grief, I suppose, is a tenderness and awareness of the hurts that surround us. With the cataract of oblivious mirth removed, you can see with startling clarity the suffering of those around you, and the brilliance of the pain endured by the people pressing through this present darkness is enough to make you press your hand over your eyes, not daring to peek again until the lights of the season are stored away and the somber of January matches the depth of sorrow you saw.
But my children insist and the candles are there, so each night I strike a match and light the first candle of Advent, the candle of hope. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. The New International Version, the Bible on which I grew up, speaks to where I am this year. For those of us walking in darkness, a great light promises hope.
And though these words are words of communion, of remembering Christ's body, not swaddled and nestled in his mother's arms, but broken and blood poured out for us at the end of His life, I whisper them anyway:
Christ is died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again
Words of hope to light our weary way.
Even so, come Lord Jesus. We are watching and waiting for You.