I grew up in a village where a campfire was set on the compound every evening. The entire family gathers around this fire. It is a place where meals and moments of conviviality are shared. It is the focal point of family life. The fire has two main functions; produce light and warmth. A beautiful circle is normally formed around the fireplace. People gathered around the fire to enjoy the warmth and the light. The fireplace was also used as a place of education for the younger generations. Elders would entertain and guide them through stories, riddles, poems, proverbs, and songs.
The individual as well as the group identity is built around the fire. Traditions, cultural heritage, and values are passed on from one generation to the next. Some campfires gather a bigger group together, for example, if a member of a community dies, friends, relatives, and other community members keep days of vigil around the fireplace in honour of the diseased member. Besides the warmth and light that people get from fire, human warmth and light are also provided through the presence of others.
Traditionally, the campfire is called Othem (Ethur language) in my area. This word was later taken up by the missionaries to refer to the Small Christian Communities. A Small Christian Community is referred to as that campfire that gives warmth and light to its members, a place where Christian identity is built and Christian values taught and lived. The light and warmth of the gospel are received here and passed on from one generation to the next. Christ becomes the light that gathers people around himself, the source of life, joy, and peace.
We live in a world where the signs of death and darkness surround us. Violence, wars, broken families, new forms of slavery, human trafficking, individualism, ever-growing economic inequalities, decreased sense of the sacred and increasing sense of emptiness, the quest for power and control over others, the list may continue ad infinitum. Can the light of Advent bring us the hope we need to overcome the impossible? The voice of the prophet Isaiah sounds so familiar: “Night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples.” He adds that night and darkness are embedded in a deep consolation, a promise: “Arise, shine out, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen on you. Look! Though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, on you Yahweh is rising and over you, his glory can be seen.” Is 60, 1.2 How can this be possible? You and I are so limited. Where is the light transforming the darkness, when will it come, and who will carry this light to us?
During this period of Advent, we gratefully and joyfully remember Mary, surrendering in trust and humility before God despite her human limitedness: « How is this possible…?… The Holy Spirit will come upon you… » (Lk. 1:34-35). Like Mary, we shall be illumined by the light from above. This special light will shine upon us. The Spirit of God will light the world in and through us. The liturgical symbol during Advent is the advent wreath with the four candles, representing the four weeks of preparation. In some regions of the world, the wreaths are made of green branches depicting life and hope. This means that there is always life and hope in God.
Even in situations of violence and wars, pains and tears, we are convinced that there is always life in God. We can keep on hoping but neither in the sense of a cheap modern-day motivational discourse nor as the sweet advertisements we constantly receive which are unfortunately without content. Hope is to know deep in our hearts that God is with us.
Hope is to believe in his word, to welcome it, to trust in his promise. Hope is to arise and to act upon God’s promise as Mary did, as Joseph did, as the shepherds did, as the three wise men did. The joy of heaven became their joy; the light of heaven became a divine flame within them. And not just for them as individual persons. This joy, this hope, this light was and still is for humanity of all times and all places. God’s grace has no limits.
So we light our Advent candles to give warmth and light to the various human situations of suffering, solitude, and darkness. Advent invites us to become candles for the world, to let God light us up for the world. We are to light up invisible candles in our hearts i.e., giving hope to people around us, with good deeds, a helping hand, and in sharing our time with others. God seeks to be human in us and through us. Once this light is lit in us, we are called to allow it to grow progressively, burning our egos, and our self-centeredness as the flame does with the wax: let ourselves be consumed in love for others, offering them light and warmth. Then it will be Christmas in our world.
Most of the Advent wreaths are circular which symbolizes unity, togetherness, and solidarity. We are invited to stand in solidarity with our neighbours, relatives and friends, and the suffering world. Christmas becomes only a reality for us if we can see the humanity of God in others, opening ourselves beyond our families, our religions, and our tribes, God breaking the boundaries between the divine and the human.
We need to break the boundaries that separate us from our brothers and sisters, the boundaries within our present society. We need to create more bridges between cultures and religions, bridges between countries, bridges between continents, and bridges of justice and healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.
This light shines for us daily in all our activities. And we need it indeed! Without it, the true Light, there is nothing we can do. This Light gives meaning to our lives. It helps us to distinguish the depth and height of the love we are loved with and the depth and height our limited human love can grow into. It is this divine light that the world desires most. Let us not exchange it against artificial lights that go out when electricity is cut off or when the bulbs are burnt. May the Holy Spirit overshadow us and kindle in us God’s divine flame during this Advent.
By Fr. Moses Alir Otii,